Free elections contested by parties are central to our conventional notions of democracy. But on what basis does a voter relate to their party: ideology, favors, personal interests, something else? And once party systems are established, how do they evolve? For New School for Social Research Politics PhD candidate Lucas Perelló, these questions provide the framework for his dissertation. And starting in September, he’ll be investigating them as a Fulbright Scholar in a country going through a nearly unprecedented political shift: Honduras.
Born in the U.S. and raised in Chile, Perelló studied politics broadly before focusing on comparative politics, especially in Latin America. After completing an MA in Chile, Perelló completed an MA in Applied Quantitative Research at New York University. But as he approached a career as a political scientist, he felt something was lacking. Looking to expand his conceptual formation, Perelló moved a few blocks north to NSSR.
“The New School overlapped with one of my other interests, which was to expand my methodological knowledge qualitatively. I was drawn to the emphasis given to aspects of development to solve conceptualizing things differently, giving you a different theoretical lenses to study particular political phenomenon.”
Political Party Shift
Immersing himself in empirical case studies and theory, Perelló began to formulate a research plan that married these elements tightly while renewing his passion for comparative approaches. “I study how political parties, and how is it and why is it that party systems change…and how it is that political parties engage with voters,” Perelló says. In this case, ‘political party systems’ refers to how elections are set up, whether voters choose between two parties or multiple parties. The question of party linkages looks at how parties get votes.
“This is a continuous debate within political science and comparative politics, but originally people thought political parties would appeal to voters on either on a programmatic basis, or a clientelist basis, or a charismatic one.” In other words, people vote for a party based on either an ideological agreement, a quid-pro-quo arrangement whereby a vote can be redeemed for favors, or force or personal magnetism of a candidate alone.
Of course, one party can have multiple sorts of such ‘linkages’ with voters, varying according to target demographic, general level of development, or ideology, and changing over time. With this interest party linkages and their evolution, Perelló was drawn to a comparatively understudied region, Central America, specifically Honduras. “Honduras actually presents very interesting insights into the entire discussion of party system change, and the types of party linkages that exist within society,” Perelló says.
Case Study: Honduras
Like many Latin American countries, Honduras transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s. For several decades after — even through a coup in 2009 — the country featured a two-party system that operated on a decisively clientelist model. But in the 2013 elections, a fundamental shift occurred: the two-party system gave way to a multi-party one, including an upstart Anti-Corruption Party led by a popular sportscaster.
“What is interesting about this change is that not only did the party system change quite abruptly, but the types of linkages that the political parties are adopting also shifted suddenly,” Perelló explains. Whereas clientelism and corruption were once the norm, programmatic appeals on the basis of ideology are gaining ground, especially among wealthier constituencies.
There are several reasons that clientelism can lose its power. Appeals based on loyalty-for-favors become weaker as countries become wealthier. Additionally, clientelism can disenfranchise large parts of a population. “There’s many levels associated with this, but at least in the Honduran context these are very exclusive networks,” says Perelló. “For example, you can have a low-income household that is very dependent on some specific policies. The benefits that you might receive from these policies that are actually aimed at reducing poverty are contingent upon who you vote for. And [the government can] keep the electorate poor because they’re dependent on them if they want to stay in power. It’s been so entrenched that the way that it also molds how individual voters, how citizens actually see democracy.”
Because this shift from clientelism to programmatic appeals in developing countries is so unusual, Honduras is a fascinating case study against which to test existing theories of party systems and linkages. Perelló has visited Honduras several times, but found that pervasive clientelism made it nearly impossible to access the people and spaces relevant to his research. It also made for an interesting situation of mistaken identity. Once, while dressed up for a visit to the National Congress, dozens of older women surrounded him. “They approached me with receipts, with CDs, pictures of their kids, asking me if I could get their sons or their daughters who just graduated a job, if I could help them pay for receipt of electricity,” he says. Only when he opened his mouth to speak — in Chilean Spanish — did the crowd realize he was not a government official and could not help them. Local politicians were similarly reluctant to let Perelló in, stonewalling him or only disclosing details of the opposition’s approach.
Opening New Doors
Returning for 10 months with the prestigious Fulbright scholarship and an office and teaching position at Central American Technological University (UNITEC), Perelló is hopeful that more doors will open to him, especially among the political elite. “I really need to spend more time there — more time to conduct interviews, more archival research,” he says. He applied to several different grants and credits his Fulbright success to the wisdom and guidance of David Plotke, Professor of Politics and his dissertation advisor, as well as Tsuya Yee, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs. But he’s cautious: “A Fulbright can work in favor or against you in the sense that, perhaps you’re seen as a representative of the U.S. government who’s meddling around internal politics of a country that has been historically intervened by the U.S. But at least to get my foot in the academic world, Fulbright has so far worked in my favor!”
Despite his focus on Honduras, Perelló believes his project can help scholars and the public understand how political systems can move away from clientelism, and how two-party systems can become more open and contested. “My overall objective in understanding these changes is to understand how can you strengthen democracy in countries that have such a strong authoritarian past.”