Neopatrimonial Political Order in Comparative Perspective

Francis Fukuyama cautioned, in his sweeping study of political order, that patrimonialism “constantly reasserts itself in the absence of strong countervailing incentives.”[1] Neopatrimonial political order has been reasserted in post-conflict Cambodia, East Timor, and Afghanistan, despite the enormous resources devoted to achieving modern political order through transformative peacebuilding interventions. The political elites in the three countries who were empowered by the transitional governance approach to peacebuilding are, unsurprisingly, as motivated to retain control over the state as they were to seize it initially. Through their control of the administrative apparatus of government, these elites have access to sanctioned streams of rent creation and distribution, which underpin, in turn, the clientelistic networks of support that keep them in power. But neopatrimonialism is a hybrid form of political order - the elements of rational-legal authority that behoove elites persist. Patron-client relationships are not coercive - they are instrumental and centered on reciprocal exchange, such that the patron uses his influence and resources to provide benefits or protection to the client, who reciprocates with political support and personal services.[2] Hence elites build and support some minimal degree of state capacity and continue to rely on the legitimacy bestowed upon them by elections, both of which are necessary to retain support from the population and international community and to continue a strategy of rent extraction.

At the same time, however, the institutional trappings of modern political order can feed into the neopatrimonial equilibrium. The pursuit of electoral democracy increases the size of the selectorate, or the fraction of society that is allowed to choose the political leadership, without meaningfully affecting the size of the winning coalition, or the fraction of the selectorate that enables the leadership to stay in power.[3] The resulting elite incentives mean that narrow patronage distribution to key supporters will be relatively high and broad-based public goods provision correspondingly low. The demand for effective government and public goods and services in the absence of the strong institutions to deliver them, similarly, only exacerbates the reliance on particularist distributive strategies as the source of legitimacy and political power. The survival or demise of political elites in a newly institutionalizing neopatrimonial system depends on the success of their network at tapping patronage resources for distribution. Thus, once entrenched, and fearing the consequences of losing power, elites face short time horizons that lead to a vicious circle in terms of the quality of governance. Elites with high discount rates increase rent extraction and distribution in the present time period; they also have less incentive to invest in institutional capacity for the future, thus failing to lengthen time horizons and intensifying the current stakes.

There are clear differences in the nature and patterns of neopatri- monialism across the three countries studied, especially in the degree to which elites collude in rent-seeking and distribution. Cambodian elites across the political spectrum appear to be enmeshed in a system of mostly exclusionary and competitive clientelism where patronage has replaced outright violence in seeking electoral support but the threat of violence looms large. In East Timor, with the group in power controlling the levers of patronage distribution, intra-elite schisms and underlying sources of conflict persist but there are signs that elite groups are increasingly colluding with one another. In Afghanistan, patterns of rent-seeking and neopatrimonialism manifest themselves in a more conflictual manner, with multiple patron-client networks engaged in persistent conflict. The varied levels of stability, government effectiveness, and democratic legitimacy in the post-intervention phase in each country can be understood through a historical institutionalist lens on the long-term challenge of constructing political order. Particular governance outcomes depend especially on the time horizons facing post-conflict elites, which, in turn, are determined by pathways into conflict and the critical juncture represented by transitional governance. Where institutions are weakest, i.e., Afghanistan, short time horizons make politics a zero-sum game, hence elites concerned with making the most of their time in power develop a predatory relationship with society. Where formal institutions and informal norms extend the shadow of the future, as in East Timor, elites are more likely to orient some elements of policymaking to the provision of collective goods for society. Intermediate outcomes are also possible, as seen in Cambodia, where systemic patronage practices along with low-level violence still permits the delivery of economic growth and collective social services and public goods.

The neopatrimonial political order that has emerged in post-conflict Cambodia, East Timor, and Afghanistan is typically viewed with unease and disappointment by the international community. It does indeed reflect the fact that international peacebuilding fails to achieve the lofty ultimate goal set for it, framed as a sociopolitical transformation to underpin lasting pace. Yet the hybrid order depicted here is, in reality, a neopatrimonial equilibrium that achieves in post-conflict countries a certain measure of political stability along with particular forms of governing effectiveness and legitimacy. The final phase of the peacebuilding pathway examined in this chapter - the ongoing aftermath of intervention - illustrates two major patterns, both of which are apparent in examining how post-conflict institutions evolve. The first is the gradual whittling away and undermining of the institutional forms preferred by the international community - rationalized bureaucracy and electoral democracy. The institutional forms of these modes of governance may persist over time but the evidence suggests that they become hollowed out quite quickly in terms of the functions they are supposed to serve once international peacebuilders have left the scene. While formal institutions become empty scaffolding, true political contestation takes place in the arenas I have identified in this chapter. That contestation, moreover, can be seen to be a dual battle to gain political authority and to use that power to continue to perpetuate political advantage into the future. This fits perfectly Paul Pierson’s observation on the path-dependent nature of power: “The exercise of authority is not just an exercise of power; it is potentially a way of generating power.”95 The second pattern offers cause for rather more optimism. Even as they unravel, to different degrees, the institutional


Pierson 2015: 130

fruits of peacebuilding interventions, domestic elites in Cambodia, East Timor and Afghanistan have established and reinforced a stable political order that underpins their ability to deliver some measure of collective benefit to their populations. Assessed against the yardstick of modern political order, this neopatrimonial system is suboptimal - but it is, at least, a relatively secure equilibrium.

If we accept that peacebuilding must be improved, rather than discarded - as I argue in the conclusion - then we must fully apprehend how it has unfolded to date, which means seeing its results not simply as falling short of modern political order. The post-conflict neopatrimonial equilibrium constitutes a set of outcomes that we can fruitfully understand and explain. It is a political order, lying between the Hobbesian state of nature and the modern liberal ideal, that benefits elites while being suboptimal for the rest of society. Only if post-conflict elite incentives can be reoriented toward building institutions and state capacity to lengthen the shadow of the future and alleviate the commitment problems that perpetuate neopatrimonialism will moves toward more effective and legitimate governance be possible.

  • [1] Fukuyama 2011: 17.
  • [2] Scott 1972. See also Stokes et al. 2013; and Gans-Morse, Mazzuca, andNichter 2014.
  • [3] Bueno de Mesquita et al. 2003.
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