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Lower levels of clientelism in Portuguese politics explain why Portugal handled austerity better than Greece during the crisis

Afonso, A., Zartaloudis, S. & Papadopoulos, Y. (2014) “Lower levels of clientelism in Portuguese politics explain why Portugal handled austerity better than Greece during the crisis“, LSE EUROPP, 27 Οκτωβρίου.


Greece and Portugal were two of the worst hit countries by the Eurozone crisis, yet the domestic political reaction within each state was notably different. While in Greece there were difficulties agreeing to austerity policies and the party system underwent substantial change; Portuguese parties negotiated a broad political consensus over reforms and the mainstream parties largely retained their support base. Alexandre Afonso, Sotirios Zartaloudis and Yannis Papadopoulos argue that the key reason for this difference relates to the varying levels of clientelism in each country, where political ‘patrons’ provide goods or services to their backers in return for political support. They write that the fact Portugal had lower levels of clientelism before the crisis ensured that Portuguese parties were more capable of backing austerity policies without alienating their supporters.

Which factors shape the willingness of political parties to pursue or agree to fiscal and welfare retrenchment? In a recently published article, we argue that the strength of clientelistic links between voters and parties shape party strategies toward austerity reforms. Political parties that draw extensively on clientelistic links and the distribution of rents to their party supporters seek to avoid or delay agreements on fiscal retrenchment because their own electoral survival depends on the control of public sector employment, regulatory powers and budgets in order to reward clients. By contrast, parties that rely less on clientelistic links have a larger margin of manoeuvre in austerity reforms because their electoral fortunes are less tied to public spending as an electoral resource.

Recently, research has shown that parties of different ideological orientations display different stances toward retrenching the welfare state. Some parties can even be rewarded electorally for retrenching social programmes and cutting public spending. However, ideology is only one mechanism that ties parties and citizens: many parties around the world do not win elections only because of their ideological programmes, but also thanks to the material resources (cash transfers, jobs, services, rents, investments or privileges) that they are able to deliver to targeted groups in exchange for votes (often referred to as ‘pork barrel politics’). We use the strength of these connections to explain different party stances toward retrenchment.


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