Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Party Activists in South Korea and Mongolia: Programmatic Linkages and Policy Motivations

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Party Activists in South Korea and Mongolia: Programmatic Linkages and Policy Motivations

Article excerpt


Party activists are important for building party-voter links. This study focuses on the motivations of these activists and the hypothesis that economic factors are associated with more programmatic and policy-driven platforms. I examine a novel comparative survey data set of party activists collected in multiple districts in South Korea and Mongolia to determine whether national economic development, the local economy, or individual income shapes activist motivations. The results challenge the economic account and, instead, shed light on the importance of party characteristics, such as size, ideology, and whether a party has its roots in authoritarianism.


party activist, linkage mechanism, motivation, third-wave democracy, South Korea, Mongolia


In democratic competition, political parties link political elites to citizens. While the nature of the linkages can vary, a prominent argument in the literature is that programmatic linkages, or policy-based relationships between voters and parties, are a function of income (Kitschelt 2000; Kitschelt and Wilkinson 2007; Kitschelt and Kselman 2013). This theory is epitomized by Kitschelt and Freeze's claim that "poverty goes with a predominance of clientelistic accountability strategies in competitive politics and high affluence goes with an emphasis on programmatic party competition" (2010, 30).

This article addresses three issues. First, despite a growing body of literature dedicated to clientelism and brokers in non-Western democracies (e.g., Stokes et al. 2013; Wantchekon 2003; Szwarcberg 2015), the extent to which their parties are connected to voters through programmatic links or their clientelistic alternatives is still unclear. Furthermore, comparative analyses are lacking in the context of East Asian democracies. (1) Second, the economic explanation does not offer a firm conclusion as to whether the effect of economic development holds only cross-nationally or within countries as well, and whether individual economic conditions determine these linkage mechanisms. The third concerns the lack of consideration of the motivations of party activists. Those understanding these linkages as parties' strategic decisions about how to distribute goods tend to implicitly assume that party activists are brokers in non-programmatic distributive politics, or unnecessary players for programmatic distribution. (2) Accordingly, distributive politics is often treated as a game taking place mostly between party elites and voters. (3)

However, this assumption about parties as unitary actors is hardly warranted when the empirical evidence is considered. From Michels' (1962 [1911]) pioneering report on the intra-party politics of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and Panebianco's (1988) influential volume on party organizations in Europe, to recent survey-based studies on party members and activists (e.g., Whiteley and Seyd 2002; Pederson et al. 2004; Cross and Young 2008; Van Haute and Carty 2012), parties are observed to be organizations of individuals with varying interests and motivations. Most parties in contemporary democracies--whether programmatic or clientelistic--contain a sizable group of activists, especially during elections. As front-line carriers for electoral appeals in local communities, party activists are the political blacksmiths that forge party-voter links. Nevertheless, despite the growing attention to how party activists monitor voters or implement parties' linkage strategies, the effect of economic well-being on the mechanisms through which voters are attached to parties has not been studied using micro-level data on party activists and their motivations.

This article focuses on the motivations of party activists, investigating whether income shapes these linkage mechanisms. Specifically, this article examines whether party activists in a lower income country (or district) are less policy-motivated compared to those in a higher income country (or district), and whether higher income activists are more policy-motivated than those with lower incomes. …

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