Party soldiers (Western Balkans)

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Party soldiers 🇦🇱 🇧🇦 🇽🇰 🇲🇪 🇲🇰 🇷🇸
Western Balkans.PNG
Location: Western Balkans
Definition: Person offering support to political parties in exchange for clientelist benefits
Keywords: Albania Bosnia and Herzegovina Kosovo Montenegro North Macedonia Serbia Balkans Yugoslavia Europe Clientelism Patronage Political party Elections Relational patronage Governance Employment Activism Euphemism
Clusters: Co-optation Informal governance Patron-client networks INFORM
Author: Jovan Bliznakovski
Affiliation: University of Milan and Institute for Democracy ʻSocietas Civilisʼ Skopje

By Jovan Bliznakovski, University of Milan and Institute for Democracy ʻSocietas Civilisʼ Skopje

A party soldier is a person who offers extended services of political support to political parties in exchange for clientelist benefits. In the Western Balkans languages, party soldiers are termed partijski vojnici (Serbian, Bosnian, Montenegrin), militantët e partisë (Albanian), партиски војници (Macedonian) and stranački vojnici (Croatian). Unlike vote buying and selling, to be a party soldier is to not only vote for a given political party in exchange for clientelist benefits, but also to offer services relevant for the building and maintaining of party organizations. Party soldiers perform numerous tasks for political parties. They participate in party events such as rallies, conventions, and meetings. During election campaigns, party soldiers partake in political mobilization activities such as ‘door-to-door’ campaigns, put up posters, provide assistance in organizing pre-election rallies, mobilize fellow citizens and prepare ‘lists of secured voters’. If they are employees of state institutions, party soldiers defend the interests of the party while exercising their formal authority. In the online social networks, party soldiers fiercely promote and defend party interests.

The term has a pejorative meaning and signifies someone uncritically loyal to a political party, while enjoying material advantages as a result of party engagement. For example, in one of the interviews conducted by the INFORM project in 2018, a Macedonian respondent explained that: ‘the party demands party soldiers and acts of obedience … if someone aims to succeed in the party … he only needs to nod his head, he does not need to have any integrity or personal stand on social problems…’ A respondent from Kosovo stated that ‘employment advantage is given to family members of politicians and to party militants’. In the vernacular, it is also often said that political parties ‘fill up the ranks of the public institutions with party soldiers’, i.e. with patronage appointments. A title of a news article in Bosnia and Herzegovina reads ‘Party soldiers are at the head of all public enterprises in Republika Srpska’ (Kovačević 2017), while one in Serbia reads ‘The heads of public companies should not be party soldiers’ (FoNet 2019). An alternative term used to describe clientelist engagement is partijska knižnica (in Serbian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, Croatian) or партиска книшка (in Macedonian), a ʻparty membership cardʼ. In the common expression, someone obtains a party membership card to get employment or another clientelist benefit.

Since they perform tasks for building and maintaining party organizations, party soldiers represent the key base of support for political parties. Political parties carefully record the ‘achievements’ of their party soldiers. The fiercest activists are first in the queue to extract clientelist benefits, as suggested in the following interview with a former member of party leadership in North Macedonia, conducted by the INFORM project: ‘... you stimulate activists by making a list [of their attendance in different activities]. And this becomes a party CV, not to be underestimated when the activist will knock on your door looking for employment’. Similarly, in Serbia, an employee in the local administration stated:

‘For one to advance, and this depends from one party to the next, [...] he/she has to do something for that party. Maybe he/she will distribute flyers or will partake in a ‘door to door’ campaign, or will have to collect secured votes – that person has to prove that they are working non-stop. And then, party officials make a list of the most meritorious activist. [...] These people are first in the employment cue after the elections, when the party wins power’.
Figure 1.

Across the region, becoming a party soldier is accepted as a viable path toward public sector employment and material benefits. The survey, conducted by the INFORM project in 2017, found a strong popular belief that employment and party affiliation were linked in the countries of the Western Balkans. On a scale of 1 to 10, respondents from Serbia agreed with the statement that employment through membership in a political party or party support was widespread in their country with a mean of 8.4, the highest among the surveyed countries (see Figure 1). The mean of agreement with the statement in other countries was between 7 and 8, apart from Kosovo where respondents agreed with the statement with a mean of 6.3. The survey also suggested that people in the Western Balkan region generally believe that losing or failing to acquire a job because of political party affiliation was widespread (the lowest mean was in Kosovo, at 6.2, and the highest in Bosnia and Herzegovina, at 7.2). Although the depoliticisation of public administration prior to EU integration is high on the agenda in each of the Western Balkan countries (see European Commission 2018: 5), these findings indicate an excessive and persistent reliance of political parties on patronage appointments across the region.

Party membership size is another potential indicator of political clientelism. In the Western Balkans, party membership is widespread compared to other European democracies. The 2017 survey by INFORM found 13 percent of the respondents in North Macedonia, 10 percent in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, 9 percent in Kosovo and 8 percent in Albania reporting to being members of political parties (Bliznakovski et al. 2017: 8), significantly higher than average in the 27 EU members, where it stood at 5 percent in the period 2004-2009 (van Biezen et al. 2012).

Party soldiers are recruited in different ways. Most commonly, they are recruited through social networks (e.g. through relatives, friends and acquaintances that hold positions in political parties) and from the rank of public employees (e.g. when incumbent political parties coerce employees in joining a party by threatening their employment positions). Party soldiers are also recruited from those in dire need of a particularistic benefit (e.g. employment). The demand for particularistic benefits is significant in the Western Balkans. 9 percent of respondents in the 2017 INFORM survey reported that they had reached out to a party official or person of influence for help in the past (14 percent in North Macedonia, 13 in Montenegro, 10 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 8 in Kosovo, 7 in Serbia and 5 percent in Albania) (Bliznakovski et al. 2017: 12).

Citizen engagement in political clientelism, as in the case of party soldiers, should be viewed as distinct from citizen engagement present in vote buying and selling. While with electoral clientelism, clients exchange electoral support for a one-time clientelist benefit, in relational clientelism – a concept proposed by Nichter (2018) – clients support the party for an extended period and extract clientelist benefits on several occasions. In Western Balkans, relational clientelism with extended party services is associated with higher-value material benefits in comparison to vote selling. While vote sellers obtain smaller amounts of cash, food, clothes, household appliances and minor administrative favours, relational clients obtain employment in the public and private sectors, administrative positions in managerial boards of public companies, access to public procurement contracts and other access to public institutions.

The data from the survey and semi-structured interviews conducted by the INFORM project that were used to prepare this entry will be made publicly available in April 2022. The research outputs from the project are available here.

References

Bliznakovski, Jovan, Borjan Gjuzelov and Misha Popovikj. 2017. ‘The Informal Life of Political Parties in the Western Balkan Societies’, Institute for Democracy ‘Societas Civilis’ Skopje, INFORM project, http://formal-informal.eu/files/news/2017/Deliverables%20and%20Milestones%202017/IDSCS-Informal%20Life%20of%20Political%20Parties-Report-27092017.pdf

European Commission. 2018. ʻCommunication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans,ʼ COM(2018) 65 final, 6 February, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/communication-credible-enlargement-perspective-western-balkans_en.pdf

FoNet. 2019. ‘Arsić: Direktori javnih preduzeća da ne budu "partijski vojnici"’, N1, 28 March, http://rs.n1info.com/Biznis/a471627/Arsic-Direktori-javnih-preduzeca-da-ne-budu-partijski-vojnici.html

Nichter, Simeon. 2018. Votes for Survival: Relational Clientelism in Latin America. Cambridge University Press

van Biezen, Ingrid, Peter Mair and Thomas Poguntke. 2012. ‘Going, going… gone? The Decline of Party Membership in Contemporary Europe’. European Journal of Political Research, 51(1): 24-56

Kovačević, Ljiljana . 2017. ‘DODIKOVA PRIPREMA ZA IZBORNU KAMPANJU: Partijski vojnici na čelu svih javnih preduzeća u RS’, Žurnal, 23 August, https://zurnal.info/novost/20642/partijski-vojnici-na-celu-svih-javnih-preduzeca-u-rs