competitive clientelism in the middle east
Ellen Lust is associate professor of political science at Yale University. She is the coeditor (with Saloua Zerhouni) of Political Participation in the Middle East (2008) and author of Structuring Conflict in the Arab World: Incumbents, Opponents, and Institutions (2005).
contests contributing to a democratic transition. Even in countries with hegemonic authoritarian regimes—North Korea, Syria, and Zimbabwe, for example—voters have gone regularly to the polls, casting ballots for representatives at the local and national levels. Indeed, scholars have consistently found that authoritarian regimes that hold elections tend to last longer than those that do not.1 It is only in “competitive authoritarian” regimes, which already exhibit some degree of political uncertainty and potential instability, that elections appear to increase the likelihood of a stable transition to democracy.2 Why do elections often tend to reinforce rather than undermine authoritarian regimes, and under what conditions do they do so? Focusing on legislative elections in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), this essay argues that elections provide elites and their supporters an opportunity to compete over special access to a limited set of state resources that they can then distribute to their clients—a process that I call “competitive clientelism.” By doing so, elections aid ruling elites’ ability to grant special privileges to local elites, creating among contending elites and their followers a belief that they will have access to state resources—if not today, then in the future—and establishing an incentive structure that tends to return proregime legislatures. Far from putting pressure on the regime to democratize, elections can provide a mechanism for the distribution of patronage that reduces demands for change. Citizens in the MENA region have long participated in elections. For decades, voters have gone to the polls and cast their ballots for a variety
Journal of Democracy Volume 20, Number 3 July 2009 © 2009 National Endowment for Democracy and The Johns Hopkins University Press
Authoritarian regimes often hold elections for decades without these
of institutional bodies—student organizations, trade unions, municipal councils, national legislatures, and the head of state—as well as to voice their opinions on referendums. They have done so in a variety of regime types—from monarchies to single-party states—and even when they lived under British and French tutelage during the mandate period. They have participated in elections in the context of regimes that maintained highly constrained political spheres. Even today, despite the reintroduction of multipartism in many countries and a general (albeit limited and circuitous) trend toward political liberalization, countries in the MENA consistently rate as Not Free or only Partly Free according to Freedom House, and have notably lower scores in government responsiveness and political rights according to the World Bank. How voters behave, the ways in which incumbent elites attempt to manage citizen participation, and the extent to which elections can promote democratization depend to some degree on the type of election. Elections for student councils, trade unions, municipal councils, national legislatures, and the presidency all have very different dynamics. Take, for example, presidential and legislative elections in dominant-party regimes. In this context, presidential elections signal support for the incumbent leader, dissuading potential opponents from challenging the regime. To be effective, regime elites must show not only that voters will cast their ballots for the leader, but also that they can mobilize the people. They seek both high voter turnout and an overwhelming majority of votes cast for the ruler. In contrast, legislative elections do not require—and rarely