Informal Politics is Real

The use of personal relations to obtain power and privileges is a central but usually hidden side of politics. Formal politics gets most of the headlines, while informal politics runs much of the show.  With posts from a group of researchers studying the machinations of power in different parts of the world, this blog aims to bring together stories, thoughts, analyses and insights on the nature of informal politics and its impact.

Informal politics is everywhere. A member of a political party manipulating the implementation of a welfare program so that only his party supporters get help. Old ties of friendship shaping the selection of cabinet ministers. Government officials arranging his promotion by performing favors for politicians. A businessmen securing a mining concession by financing an election campaign. A local party broker buying the votes of his neighbours.

Such a list evokes associations of corruption, illegality, of people breaking the law. That is what informal politics might seem like – as a bunch of tricks of a scheming few, intent on undermining official rules and procedures by exploiting personal connections. In this view informal politics is behaviour of people that goes against the way a government is run. There is something reassuring in such an interpretation, implying that there is an orderly and clear system of government run by good apples, only occasionally waylaid by a few bad apples.

If only. For many, of not most governments, informal politics – the ways in which people draw on personal relations to obtain power and privileges – is not the domain of a few bad apples. Informal politics is an intrinsic part of how governments are run, of how power is obtained and resources are distributed. It is the domain of both good and bad apples, as people in power rarely have the luxury of playing only by formal rules and procedures. In real life politics means the balancing of loyalty towards laws and formal institutions with the need to fulfil social obligations and maintain sources of support.

Informal politics shapes the way governments work. The gap between the impact of government policies and their stated intentions is often due to informal politics. A prohibition of selling alcohol might turn out to be cash-cow for police officials. A government program to provide subsidized rice for the poor might end up benefitting a better-connected middle class. A program of subsidized social housing might be captured by a political party, using the homes to reward their supporters. A policy to protect rain forests might have little real impact if politically connected loggers can pressurize implementing officers. Infrastructure projects might lead to inferior roads if builders are required to provide sizable kickbacks. That such government programs turn out differently is not because no rules were followed. It is because other rules were followed. These are informal institutions, i.e. rules and expectations embedded in everyday social relations.

Yet while informal politics runs so much of the show, formal politics – the more visible sphere of debates in parliament, political parties and campaign speeches, of ngo’s and demonstrations– gets most of the headlines. That is convenient for many: the status and power of bureaucrats and ruling politicians depends on a certain masking of the machinations of informal politics. Many would prefer to deny how the functioning of their government is shaped by just as much by personal connections as by rules. Some journalists are pretty good at piercing through this façade. But often journalists risk more than missing a deadline if they would delve into the actual machinations of government.

It is also not easy for researchers to pierce through this façade. Most of political science busies itself with formal politics. Not that informal politics is intentionally ignored. But the study of informal politics is difficult to research. It takes time to acquire the trust to gain access to the right networks, and even more time and trust to get to hear the right stories. And when researchers return to their writing desks with all these stories, they face the difficult task of convincing others that these are not just a bunch of tall tales, that these are not exceptional but rather representative descriptions of how government is run. Observations on the nature of informal politics are difficult to quantify and hence difficult to generalize. Formal politics with its elections, parties and procedures is much easier to describe in terms of general patterns.

Language is not helping either. While formal politics can be described in terms of nice and clean words – votes, parties, interests, policies, representation – informal politics is the domain of a whole range of terms that do not do well in a conversation over dinner, such as nepotism, patronage, patrimonialism, political mediation, patron-client relations, rent-seeking. While informal politics leaves its traces everywhere, the animal itself is difficult to spot and capture.

Hence this blog. This blog aims to be a collection of stories, thoughts, and insights on the nature of informal politics and its impact on how governments are actually run. Some of this blog contains snippets of our fieldwork. Most of us developed this odd hobby hanging around at late hours in strange places with various protagonists of informal politics – not just politicians, but also brokers, neighbourhood leaders, criminal types, bureaucrats, fixers, youth gangs, religious leaders, etc. This blog is a scrapbook for all those wonderful stories and experiences that somehow could not (yet) be used in academic publications.  There will also be posts that contain musings on the theories and terminology that might serve to capture informal politics. Some posts concern comparisons as countries and regions differ in the way and the extent to which politics is informal. Most contributors are researchers based in the Netherlands, working on research topics that involve informal politics. As most of the contributors work on Asia, the blog will unavoidably have a regional bias. That is not intentional: informal politics is everywhere, even if it takes different forms. If this blog would serve to spark discussion and exchanges among people studying, following or experiencing informal politics, then its purpose is served.

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3 thoughts on “Informal Politics is Real

  1. Great initiative. One is almost tempted to reverse things: consider informal politics as the rule, formal politics as the exception. Perhaps formal politics (and from NGO side: the language of rights) is more like a dream of an abstract and formal world, while realities are much more messy – and sometimes, perhaps, fortunately so. Perhaps formal politics themselves thrive on mechanisms of informality that are not always as malignant as many of the exemples above. Are personal relationships always bad in politics? Think of diplomacy. So please continue, Ward and others, to feed us with challenging field experiences!

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