Big game, small town: clientelism and democracy in the modern politics of Belize, 1954-2011
KeywordsClientelism, Belize, Democracy, Caribbean politics, Vote buying, Corruption, Electoral politics, Democratic participation, Patronage, Representation
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AbstractPresenting Belize as an illustrative and critical case of clientelist democracy in the Commonwealth Caribbean, this thesis explores the origins of clientelist politics alongside the pre-independence birth of political parties, analyses its rapid expansion after independence in 1981 and assesses its implications for democratic governance. Based on qualitative research, including interviews with major political leaders, the thesis contends that, despite Belize’s positive post-colonial reputation for consolidating formal democracy, the concurrent expansion of clientelism, as both an electoral strategy and a mode of participation, ranks high among the worrying challenges affecting the quality of its democracy. Although intense party competition in a context of persistent poverty is central to explaining the trajectory of clientelism in Belize, the Westminster model of governance, the disappearance of substantive policy distinctions among parties and the embrace of neoliberal economic policies fuelled its expansion. Small-state size and multi-ethnicity have also been contributing factors. Even though the thousands of monthly dyadic transactions in constituencies are largely rational individual choices with short-term distributive benefits, the thesis concludes that, collectively, these practices lead to irrational governance behaviour and damaging macro-political consequences. Political participation is devalued, public resources are wasted, governance reform becomes more difficult and political corruption is facilitated. As a parallel informal welfare system has become embedded, politicians and citizens alike have become trapped in a ‘big game’ of mutual clientelist dependency. A comparative analysis of post-independence political developments in other Commonwealth Caribbean states shows that the expansion of political clientelism in the context of competitive party politics is significantly path dependent. Besides contributing to the political historiography of modern Belize, this thesis demonstrates that national studies of small clientelist democracies can provide valuable insights into the ways in which informal political practices interact with a state’s formal institutions to shape the quality of democracy itself.