Party Patronage and Party Colonization of the State

Wolfgang C Müller. Handbook of Party Politics. Editor: Richard S Katz & William Crotty. Sage Publications, 2006.


Party patronage is the use of public resources in particularistic and direct exchanges between clients and party politicians or party functionaries. Directness means that, in contrast to programmatic linkages, the parties are able to identify their clients individually and engage in a contract-like exchange relationship in which politicians provide goods and services in exchange for some kind of support. Typically, party patronage is disguised for official purposes as norm application and, indeed, many patronage acts do not violate legal norms. Yet, clients who receive public goods and services understand that their party connection has been critical for that purpose. A party connection may be essential because the bureaucracy is inefficient and unresponsive and/or because it helps to use administrative discretion to the benefit of the client, indeed, up to the point of bending the law.

A judgemental classification of some Western democracies, worked out by the author in cooperation with Herbert Kitschelt, distinguishes four categories of countries:

  • No or virtually no party patronage: Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
  • Low level of party patronage: the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the UK.
  • Medium level of party patronage: France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and the USA.
  • High level of party patronage: Austria, Belgium, Greece, and Italy.

Although there are relevant differences between the countries within each group, this ordering is alphabetical and not an attempt to assign rank order.

The Benefits of Clients

A number of client benefits have been identified in the international literature on party patronage. They can be located on a continuum between incentive and compulsion. In the first case, the client receives something of value to him, in the latter case the client is protected from some negative event. Often, the patron not only is able to prevent negative events but also can make them more likely to occur in the case of disobedience. The following discussion moves from the least coercive to the most coercive of these exchanges.

There are non-material and material patronage goods. Among the first ones is know-how, especially for dealing with authorities. If the bureaucratic requirements for claiming public services are highly formalized, complicated, and tedious, and therefore difficult for the ‘ordinary’ citizen to cope with, the intermediary role of delegates and party functionaries may consist solely of putting through their rightful claims. It is also possible, however, for these professional intermediaries, backed up by the power of a party, to expand illicitly the interpretation of the conditions for allocating services. In this case, the patronage resource is no longer know-how concerning access to government services, but the services themselves. Non-material status improvements (such as titles or knighthoods) are another benefit often exchanged in patronage relations (Blondel and Cotta, 1996, 2000).

Material patronage goods cover a wide range. Until the late 1950s, packets of macaroni were still distributed in Italian election campaigns to ‘persuade’ the recipients (Zuckerman, 1979). Most material patronage resources are, however, rather more subtle (Mühlmann and Llayora, 1968: 32; Chubb, 1982: 11ff). Public money is used directly in various ways: grants, subsidies, government contracts, tax reliefs, and sponsored credits. Handing out the money can take different forms, from administrative decisions to tailor-made pork barrel legislation. Another resource is licences, e.g. for practising certain professions or businesses. Such a licence grants entry to some partly protected sector of the economy and hence provides the holder with a relatively safe income. In many countries public housing is a classic patronage resource (Higgins, 1982: 172-3; Chubb, l982: 172-3; Müller, 1989). Yet, the most important patronage resource may be jobs in the public sector. Two forms of ‘job patronage’ can be distinguished: service patronage and power patronage (Eschenburg, 1961). Service patronage refers to employment or promotion in exchange for the client’s loyalty outside his or her job. Power patronage refers to the allocation of important positions. The decisive question in selecting personnel is what the client, once appointed, will be able and willing to do for the party.

The above suggests that the greater the public sector, the greater is the potential for patronage. This is true. However, shrinking the public sector leads to enormous increases in patronage resources in the short term. If privatization is carried out according to considerations of patronage rather than efficiency, the parties in charge of making these decisions have greater patronage resources than their predecessors, in effect being able to use the ‘capital’ of the public sector for patronage, where their predecessors, in maintaining the public sector, could only use ‘the interest’. Industrial privatization in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe often seems to have followed that logic and the political relations of potential buyers of public sector property seem to have been important in Western European countries, as well (Feigenbaum et al., 1998). Such deals have the potential of generating enormous kickbacks for the parties in charge of making the decisions. At the same time privatization can also undermine existing patronage relations (e.g. those between public sector employees and their parties). This is not an inconsistency in party strategy, as the parties carrying out privatizations typically are different from the ones that hold party sector strongholds.

Finally, patronage can also be used for the purpose of waiving administrative penalties. Opportunities for imposing such penalties nearly always exist. By having patronage a client can get around them. Government parties abuse public authority not for bribing firms to contribute to their resources, but forcing them to do so. Firms that do not contribute run the risk of being excluded from all kinds of government contracts. Rather than providing ‘preferential treatment’ for party donors, non-donors are punished, e.g. for not observing environmental standards or safety regulations, and thorough inspections by the tax authorities (see Chubb, 1982). Italy and France come close to the coercion solution (Ruggiero, 1996; Nelken, 1996). The business contributions to party finance, as revealed, for instance, in the Tangentopoli scandal, have more resemblance to a tax imposed on the firms than to voluntary bargains.

Benefits of the Parties

Political parties, party factions, and individual politicians expect the following pay-offs from patronage: votes, labour, money, strategic flexibility, and policy-making capacity.


The simplest expectation in patronage relations is that the clients vote for the party that has provided the goods or services. Provided the electoral institutions allow, votes can be more narrowly targeted to factions or individual politicians (Golden, 2003). Note, however, that policing the deal is difficult for the party (Warner, 1997). This problem can be solved if the party manages to make their patronage relations a social exchange that creates the feeling of belonging (Eisenstadt and Roniger, 1984; Guterbock, 1980). Alternatively, the party can use proxies for the electoral loyalty of its clients, such as their participation in elections (provided that there are not suitable alternatives) or use institutional remedies (Müller, 2006), though this is not always possible. Political parties may therefore be better off concentrating on other potential benefits of patronage relations.

Labour and Money

Political parties can tend to confine their patronage to party members and hence provide incentives for enrolment. Dues-paying members, in turn, provide the party with financial resources. Some members become activists who also devote labour to the party. Many parties critically depend on the work of activists for maintaining their mass organization and conducting campaigns. Yet, from the point of view of the party, labour and money, to some extent, can serve as substitutes for one another (Strøm, 1990). Therefore, party patronage never was confined to the masses of the lower social strata. While patronage for businesses is unlikely to tie great numbers of voters to the party or fill its ranks of activists, monetary returns can be used for buying professional services such as opinion polls, political consulting, and television spots on the market which, in turn, are designed to help boosting the party’s electoral performance (Wolfinger, 1972: 393).

Strategic Flexibility

Party activists typically have some influence on the course of their party, either via intra-party democracy or via the law of anticipated reaction, i.e. their capacity to withhold vital resources such as their financial and labour contributions. How much activists are likely to indeed exercise their power, however, varies and partly depends on the types of compensation they receive for their work. Party activists who are mainly motivated by their ideological commitments and their policy expectations typically will insist on the party taking these positions (Schlesinger, 1984). Party leadership initiatives that are not in agreement with these views will meet with their resistance and will often be watered down or delayed. Party activists who are primarily socially motivated, in turn, are likely to resist organizational reforms that upset their ‘club life’. In contrast, activists who are primarily patronage-motivated will impose fewer constraints on the party’s flexibility in terms of policy and organizational innovation as long as their compensation is not in jeopardy. Yet, exclusively patronage-motivated activists are likely to be less reliable in hard times for the party, when rewards are not around the next corner.

Policy-Making Capacity

As already indicated, political parties can increase their policy-making capacity by exercising patronage. Although money can buy all kinds of know-how, real-world parties use their funds mostly for the expertise required for running their organization and electoral campaigns. The bulk of expertise required for policy-making, however, comes from people on the public payroll. In spoils systems such as the USA, political parties can temporarily fill a thick layer of positions with policy-making capacity with their adherents. In such cases party patronage is overt and part of the system’s normal working. Yet, administrative systems built almost exclusively on a professional civil service with a merit system are not necessarily free from patronage. In many Western European systems (Austria, Belgium, and Italy traditionally stand out) political parties have used every opportunity to fill the ranks of the civil service with their adherents. By planting their trustees in the administration and the public sector more generally, political parties can make their policies better informed and smooth their implementation, a strategy labelled power patronage above.

Power patronage, of course, violates the idea of bureaucratic neutrality, but it is in tune with an extensive interpretation of the idea of party government (Katz, 1986). However, these appointments may turn out to be an obstacle to party government if they are permanent and government power passes from one party or coalition to another. Partisan civil servants are not only important as faithful implementers when their party is in office. When it is out of office they may act as party spies, keeping their political masters informed about the inner life of government. They may also try to use their influence to block, delay or water down what are, from their party’s point of view, particularly undesirable policies. Finally, in a system that claims to be based on merit and recruits top administrators out of the lower civil servant ranks, it is important for political parties that come to office to have some of their adherents waiting in the wings so that they have suitable candidates when top positions become vacant.

In recent years the classic merit system has been augmented by new public management (NPM) methods. Under the NPM model, administrators have fixed goals in terms of outputs or outcomes. As goal achievement is the criterion for the evaluation of their performance (Lane, 2000; Peters and Pierre, 2001), there should be little room for patronage. Yet, the goals cannot always be stated so clearly that performance evaluation becomes mechanical. If the performance of the administrators is subject to interpretation by the incumbent politicians, patronage rather than efficiency may be the result. Rather than making appointments more rational from a system perspective, NPM techniques may ease making them according to party needs. NPM civil servants with short-term contracts may generally be more willing to help in raising patronage resources than the members of an old-fashioned merit bureaucracy with permanent appointments.

While party patronage is openly recognized under the US spoils system, appointments under the other systems can be made in a partisan manner but disguised as merit or technocratic. A qualitative assessment of Western European parliamentary democracies suggests that partisanship has no relevance for making civil service appointments in only five countries (Denmark, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Norway) while in Sweden and the UK it affects the appointment of top officials only (Strøm et al., 2003). In the remaining countries political parties have entrenched themselves in the bureaucracy more broadly. In the most clientelist systems – Austria, Belgium, and Italy -relevant civil service appointments are routinely made with a strong partisan bias.

With regard to the judicial branch of government, party patronage seems to be less widespread and less consequential, if the silence of the literature can be taken as a valid indicator. There is, however, considerable party patronage in appointing judges who have to settle political disputes in some systems. Thus, constitutional judges in France, Austria, and Germany, and Supreme Court judges in the USA are typically selected on the basis of their party adherence. Parties certainly hope that their appointees will help their cause in the case of conflicting interpretations of the constitution. Yet, this is not always the case as the design of the appointment procedure may favour candidates who are acceptable to other parties and the judges themselves tend to be concerned about their professional reputation.

Maintaining the Patronage System

While public sector jobs are an important patronage resource themselves, it is also important to consider the indirect effects of making patronage appointments to these jobs. Bureaucrats and public sector managers control a wealth of other resources that can be used in party patronage. Having party comrades appointed to relevant positions, parties will often find it easy to get civil servants to do them a ‘favour’ and to provide resources required for patronage. Using public resources for party or personal purposes should be easiest under the spoils model. After all, politicians and officials share the bonds of co-partisanship, and if patronage has the intended effects it will help to keep both of them in office. The more the merit system de facto has been turned into a party patronage system, the more we can expect civil servants to apply political criteria in their decisions (Della Porta and Vannucci, 1996: 357-62).

Systemic Consequences of Patronage

Finally, what are the system effects of party patronage? Without claiming completeness, the following effects can be identified.

Political and Social Integration

Beginning with Merton (1968: 127-9), functional perspectives have identified potentially beneficial effects of party patronage. Accordingly, parties that exercise patronage ‘fulfill existing needs somewhat more effectively’ than the official structure. ‘In our prevailing impersonal society’ a patronage party, the machine, ‘fulfills the important social function of humanizing and personalizing all manner of assistance to those in need’ and provides help for the ‘deprived classes’. It also provides alternative channels of social mobility. In that vein patronage has been characterized as a way of integrating split societies (cf. Scott, 1972). In this sense, the proportional patronage of the immediate post-war period in Austria is a case in point. It undoubtedly contributed to the integration of the l934 civil war opponents and the reintegration of the former Nazis in the political system. Although party patronage violated the classical concept of a ‘neutral’ or ‘nonpartisan’ bureaucracy, it led to a civil service and an army which for the first time in modern Austrian history incorporated both major political subcultures and were thus fully acceptable to both major subcultures (Secher, 1958: 807). Yet, patronage systems have the inherent tendency to develop towards less desirable consequences (Piattoni, 2001). It is often argued in the literature that patronage undermines horizontal social relations. Instead of class and status solidarity, the vertical patron-client relationship dominates and clients see other people merely as rivals for patronage benefits (see Banfield, 1958; Belloni et al., 1979: 272; Graziano, 1973: 5; Higgins, 1982: 133; Mühlmann and Llayora, 1968: 33). This characterization is most accurate for the classic patron-client relationship (e.g. landlord-peasant). Yet, it is also of relevance for ‘democratized’ patronage through political parties, as ‘democratization’ always needs to remain incomplete in a patronage system. Maintaining the effectiveness of the patronage system means that the parties must refrain from levelling social dependencies and inequalities (Belloni et al., l979: 268).

Economic Inefficiency

Once parties subscribe to a patronage strategy, it tends to develop a strong dynamic of its own, constantly drawing in new areas until a patronage system exists (cf. Eschenburg, 1961: 24). There is wide consensus in the literature that party patronage is expensive and economically inefficient. Where state activity is determined by patronage this tends to result in a bloated civil service. Patronage also inflates demands and hence, in order to keep its effects constant, its costs increase over time (Belloni et al., 1979; Caciagli and Belloni, l981). Patronage leads to overinvestment in those goods that are required as a means in patronage exchanges (Weingast et al., 1981; Brosio, 1988; Golden, 2002). Positions created or allocated on the basis of patronage are often superfluous and the relevant appointments suboptimal; public funds distributed (primarily) on patronage criteria are often of only very limited value in achieving the nominal goal (cf. Scott, 1969).

Systemic Corruption

Party patronage violates the ideal of bureaucratic rationality and undermines central constitutional principles such as equality before the law (cf. Eschenburg, 1961; Armin, 1980).

Populist Backlash

Unjustified preferential treatment of individuals and firms, economic inefficiency, a bloated public sector, and the resulting consequences of high taxation and/or increasing public debt are likely to outrage citizens. Of course, those citizens who bear the costs of a patronage system but have no advantage have every reason to turn against it. Yet, even recipients of party patronage are likely to join the protest, provided that they have received their share, and new patronage to other clients is likely to diminish the relative value of the goods they have received (e.g., additional licences make new competitors, public housing given to immigrants devalues their housing rights). Hence, patronage systems include the germ of populist protest. Indeed, the western European countries with the highest levels of party patronage have the strongest populist parties, the rise of which owes much to their targeting of party patronage and corruption (Kitschelt, 2000). What is less clear, however, is whether these parties are more interested in abolishing the system or getting their share.

The Future of Party Patronage

As time passes, party patronage changes both in scope and form. The literature on mass patronage in Western democracies generally suggests that it has been in decline in recent decades (Theobald, 1983). For one thing, mass patronage comes under pressure from the resource side. Mass patronage is expensive and inflationary. Yet, today’s decision-makers are increasingly confronted with budget constraints and forced to look for economically efficient solutions. Likewise, privatization removes a great number of jobs and other patronage resources from the public sector. On the demand side we see that the market increasingly offers substitutes to the goods traded by political actors in mass patronage deals and that an increasing proportion of the citizens are able to purchase these goods there and hence no longer depend on patronage exchange.

With the decline of party identification (Dalton, 2004), it has become much more difficult to construct patronage deals as social exchange. Anecdotal evidence such as the apparently increasing number of party finance scandals (Ridley and Doig, 1995; Della Porta and Mény 1997; Della Porta and Pizzorno, 1996; Rhodes, 1997; Ruggiero, 1996; de Sousa, 2001) suggests that a shift from mass patronage to deals with business entrepreneurs is occurring in Western democracies (e.g. Moss, 1995). This shift is causally related not only to the changes affecting patronage deals but also to changes in political organization and campaigning. Money has turned out to be the most valuable resource in (the permanent) campaign, given the large markets of voters without any party attachment. As a consequence patronage may place itself more clearly under the label of political corruption than traditionally was the case.