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Posts Tagged ‘Sami Atallah

What Red Lines have the Lebanon mass upheaval Protesters Drawing?

Sami Atallah, LCPS executive director. October 2019

Protesters Are Drawing Their Own Red Lines

In light of the government’s decision on 17 October 2019, to increase taxes and impose a fee on WhatsApp, protests broke across the country in an unprecedented way.

This is not the first time people protest—they have done so in the last decade—but this instance is different.

Firstly, it was spontaneous and leaderless as people took it upon themselves to take to the streets, on Thursday night.

Secondly, protests are not Beirut-centric: They are spread across the country, and in political party strongholds usually immune to such movements, such as Nabatieh, Sour, Zouk, and Tripoli.

Thirdly, unlike the 2005 protests following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, those of 2011 against the sectarian system, or those of 2015 which were triggered by the garbage crisis, this movement is primarily a socio-economic revolt triggered by tax.

Taken aback, politicians had to quickly acknowledge the grievances of the protesters, estimated to be more than one million countrywide, but failed to understand how deep the discontent is.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is also the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, the largest party in parliament, could not even read people’s anger. He was in such denial that he actually said that “these protests are not against us, they are in our favor,” only to be targeted with damning chants by protesters in the streets.

(Actually, this mass movement offered an boost to the credibility of FPM for trying hard to change this anomie system, where every “leader” and his deputy acquired the monopoly of all the consumer goods, energy, services, financial transaction, real estates…)

Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, was defensive as he went at great length to explain to his constituency that he did not betray them, because no new taxes were adopted by the government in the first place—a claim that is not true according to members in the government. He went on to say that, in any case, even if approved, he would vote them down in parliament.

The Amal Movement, which was silent for the first three days of the protests, came out to say that they had been fighting for such demands for the last 45 years, failing to recognize that, if true, how this makes them look utterly inept. (Actually, Nabih Berry is the Parliament chairman for the 27 years, and I conjecture that he is the Godfather of all the militia/mafia “leaders”)

The Lebanese Forces (LF) (Samir Jaaja) and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) (Walid Jumblat), which were both marginalized in the government, saw an opportunity to bring it down. (Actually the LF was Not marginalized and got more than its block in the Parliament)

LF went on to resign, but PSP stuck it out, perhaps, hoping to extract certain concessions from the prime minister. As for Prime Minister Saad Hariri, he came out with a 72-hour ultimatum to his coalition members to accept his reform measures, largely proposed in the CEDRE conference in April 2018.

Realizing how serious the situation is, the prime minister adhered to his self-imposed deadline and announced following a government meeting on Monday, 21 October, a list of 25 policy measures to address the socio-economic crisis.

Putting aside the content of these measures for a moment, it is impressive how, when under popular pressure, the government found the time and effort to produce some policy ideas.

In 3 days and one governmental session, it passed measures and bills exceeding by far the two bills—electricity in April 2019 and the Budget Law 2019 in July 2019—that took more than 35 sessions held between February 2019 and last week.

Some of the key measures that the government adopted after the 72-hour deadline include the reduction of the deficit, no additional taxes on people, adopting a pension law, and fighting corruption.

However, many of the measures cast doubt on how realistic they are and fall short of people’s expectations. They came too little too late. In any case, there are several concerns.

It is unclear how the government will reduce the deficit from more than 7% to almost 0.6% of GDP in one year.

The task to cut $5 billion is monumental, and after more than 30 years of chronic budget deficit, the fact that it found a way to do so in three days, all without major tax reforms, seems suspicious.

It did not provide an implementation to the plan, but the one-time tax on bank profits shows how unsustainable this will be. The government may also be planning to have the Central Bank carry the deficits so that its books would look shinier. Whatever the plan is, a sustainable and fair public finance framework needs to be in place, and it is clearly missing so far.

Reducing the deficit without taxing the people reveals how rotten, arrogant, and greedy the political elites have been. (It is their flaunting of their robbed wealth that exaggerated the discontent when every deputy or a main public servant spend $millions for the wedding of their sons…)

They have consistently taxed working people and made them disproportionately carry the tax burden while arguing that there were no other options.

Currently, two-third of tax revenues are regressive and such taxes have increased over the years more than taxes on capital, even though the former’s real income effectively declined in the last decade, whereas the latter had made significant economic gains. The government only backtracked when the unfair tax system triggered this revolt.

The government’s plan to fight corruption is simply ridiculous.

The same political parties enlisted corruption as a major electoral demand back in the 2018 parliamentary election, but they have done absolutely nothing to fight it. The government’s plan to adopt the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform’s strategy to fight corruption is simply to appease donors, and to show that it is doing something about it.

This time, people will have none of that.

If it were serious about reforms, the government would have prepared or even adopted the draft law to make the judiciary independent. (On paper and by law the judiciary is independent)

It would have also strengthened the oversight agencies including the procurement office. These are crucial elements to fight corruption but the government was silent concerning them.

In fact, even when the government adopted the electricity bill in April 2019, it undermined the role of the procurement agencies by having a ministerial committee decide on the winning bid—an act prone to corruption.

Tellingly, even the prime minister is not convinced of his own plan, as he states that, in order to avoid corruption in state contracts, capital investment from taxpayers’ money—which is a key part of growth—will be zero.

One would have thought that, if credible, the strategy the government plans to adopt would push for clear and transparent procurement systems. To state that the foreign-funded capital investment will be free of corruption is to admit that all publicly contracted projects are already infested with corruption. He should then set up an independent committee to review all these contracts.

Bringing the private sector into the equation through what is commonly known as the Public Private Partnership (PPP) requires serious institutional regulatory prerequisites that the state does not have.

Those who argue that we need to adopt PPP because the state is weak and it does not have the capacity are those undermining it and contributing to the public theft in the first place.

In fact, for PPP to be effective and positively contribute to the economy, we need an effective state which we currently do not have due primarily to the political parties that have governed over the last 30 years.

As for pension reform, Hariri has provided little information on how it is going to work or be funded. It seems that he was compelled to do so to appease the protesters.

The prime minister also enlisted one of the demands of the people about the “stolen money”. This is the first time that he finally recognizes the issue but he clearly has neither the intention to implement it, nor the mechanism to do so. How could he, when many of those who have contributed to public theft are either politicians or have strong connections to them?

Knowing how the government works, the timeline of the program is not feasible at all.

What is missing from the program—in addition to the institutional pillars like an independent judiciary and strong oversight agencies—are the regard for key environmental concerns.

The government has so far ignored scientific evidence against the building of incinerators and dams, as private financial interests continue to trump people’s health.

Putting the pieces together, all these policy measures lack credibility, and they hollow out the state rather than build an effective one.

The fact that the government rushed into adopting these measures shows how flawed the system is and betrays a failure in governance par excellence. These policy measures cannot and will not be implemented without effective and sustained pressure.

Perhaps, Hariri found the opportunity with the protest to pass key measures and legislation, previously obstructed by his coalition partners, to appease donors and get access to CEDRE money (European funds).

This is not what the country needs.

What Lebanon needs is something fundamentally different.

We need an effective state that works for the people, an accountable government that we can trust and that listens to people’s needs, and a social contract where rights are protected and taxes are fairly allocated.

None of this came through from the government’s plan. People were not fooled and remained in the streets asking for the government to resign.

The protesters have made key gains: Not only have they forced the government to cancel its plans to tax the working people, they have imposed their agenda and are shaping the political discourse in the country.

The power of the people is breaking down the walls set up by the political elite on what is possible and not possible. It is moving the red lines of what is feasible and what is not.

They have repealed the rules erected by those in power and their cronies and are drawing up their own set of rules. And this is how fair, democratic, and accountable systems emerge.

Note: Yo may read my third article on this mass upheaval.

Recession Without Impact? And why Lebanese Elites Delay Reform? Again, who are these “elites”?

October 2019
Mounir Mahmalat and Sami Atallah, respectively doctoral fellow at LCPS and LCPS director

The survival of Lebanon’s political elites is highly dependent on the well-being of the economy. Why, then, do they delay necessary reforms to avoid crisis?

This column examines the role of politically connected firms in delaying much-needed economic stabilization policies.

Lebanon’s post-war financial and economic woes are perennial.

Initially triggered by the spillover effects of Syrian crisis in 2011, macroeconomic and financial indicators were set on an utterly unsustainable path.

Government debt exploded after prolonged political gridlock led public spending to skyrocket to what is forecast to be more than 158% of GDP by 2021. Combined with increased exposure to external debt and rising interest rates, economic growth may tip into recession this year.

In short, crisis looms.

In an effort to rally support for painful reform to stabilize the country’s gloomy finances, the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri recently declared a ‘state of economic emergency’. President Michel Aoun accommodates the efforts and calls for ‘sacrifices to be made by everyone’.

Lebanon’s elites finally seem to be eager to reform.

Understandably so, because in Lebanon the personal wellbeing of the political elites is highly dependent on the wellbeing of the economy. A recent analysis by Ishac Diwan and Jamal Haidar shows,[i] of the firms with more than 50 employees, 44% are politically connected and have a board member who is a relative or close friend of a member of the political elite. (Basically, mafia “khouwat”: you get shares without disbursing money in return?)

The few reforms that passed, however, involve little structural change that could, for example, improve the competitiveness of the private sector or curb tax evasion.

Instead, the costs of economic distortion continue to be socialized via tax exemptions, the ex post approval of appropriation of public lands[ii] or high interest rates. Despite the economic challenges, political actors still benefit excessively from the status quo.

In July, for example, seven months into the new year, the parliament ratified what it called an ‘austerity budget’ for 2019. It introduced a number of expenditure cuts and revenue increases that aim to restore the confidence of investors and the international community into a government eager to reform.

But as recent research by LCPS shows, the budget law only formally curbs the budget deficit.

It leaves untouched the structural conditions that gave rise to the economic deterioration in the first place, such as a regressive tax regime that exacerbates existing inequalities and crowds out much needed public investments.

Proposals to tax the salaries, benefits, and pensions of current and former politicians were dismissed during the political bargaining.

Amendments to increase the fees on tinted car windows and the licenses to carry guns, widely used among the security entourage of politicians, vanished in the final documents.

Expenditure targets are achieved by simply deferring the bill of investment projects to the upcoming years.

But when the wellbeing of political elites, in fact their very survival, is so highly dependent on the wellbeing of the economy, why would they delay more structural efforts to contain the budget deficit or make the tax regime more efficient?

The high degree of their entrenchment in key sectors of Lebanon’s economy calls into question how political elites calculate the opportunity costs of political gridlock. (Not just key sectors but monopoly for every consumer goods, energy, services and financial transactions…)

And why is Lebanon’s stabilization delayed?

Research on the political economy of reform explains the delay of stabilization as a consequence of the struggle of powerful interest groups to shift the cost of reform onto each other. Precisely because reform comes at a cost for elites, they prolong political bargain by embarking on a ‘war of attrition’.[iii]

Stabilization, or a change in the status quo, occurs when economic conditions deteriorate sufficiently so that one of the groups concedes and bears a higher burden of the costs.

To understand the war of attrition among Lebanese elites, one must look at the structure of their entrenchment with the private sector.

Politically connected firms concentrate in sectors that are not—or are relatively less—affected by a downturn of the overall economy. Economic conditions, at least until recently, simply exerted little pressure for actors on a personal basis to concede and to bear the costs of reform.

Dis-aggregating the data provided by Diwan and Haidar (2019) shows that economic downturn leaves those sectors comparably well-off in which more than half of all firms are politically connected (we excluded sectors with less than 10 firms in total).

Take the hospitality sector, for instance. Firms running hotels and waterfront resorts are, respectively, 61% and 55% connected to political elites.

Passengers at the Beirut airport increased constantly over the past years, while the number of tourists increased by almost 45% from 2012 to 2017. Accordingly, hotels and waterfront resorts recorded a major improvement in their booking records. The occupancy rates of four and five-star hotels in Beirut reached 69.2% (up from 58.9% in 2018) while the average room yield rose by 29.

The banking sector is another example.

Profiting heavily from the huge margins paid by treasury bills, the profitability of domestic banks remained, until recently, almost unabated.

In 2017, Lebanese commercial banks significantly expanded their profits, reaching a return on average equity of above 11.2% for the group of major banks.

Despite the challenging macroeconomic environment and the difficulties sky-high interest rates impose on the Ministry of Finance’s ability to repay its debt, the return on average equity for the sector as a whole (10.8%) is on par with the 11% average of banks in the Middle East and North Africa.[iv]

Other sectors are structurally less affected by economic downturn and exhibit a low elasticity of demand.

Security companies, for example, are employed by politicians, business people and other public figures, for whom security remains a necessity in the face of prevailing political and security uncertainty.[v] The same holds for garbage collection, which continues to be collected at sky-high rates.

Shipping lines are also spared much of the effects of Lebanon’s economic woes, since foreign trade activity must be done by ship after the closure of land routes through Syria in 2011.

In fact, the number of vessels at Beirut port remained almost constant between 2012 until 2018. Public works and investments enjoy rosy prospects due to internationally funded major capital investment programs worth almost 40% of GDP.

The game-changer, however, may be the real estate sector. It is the only major sector with a high share of politically connected firms that suffers from a gradual decline in activity and output.

Since the boom year of 2010, the area of new construction permits has almost halved until 2018: From 17,625 to 9,020 thousand square meters.

Slowing demand lowers the value of sales transactions, which plummeted by 40%, from $4,504 million to only $2,726 million in the first six months of 2017 to 2019.

Given the central role that the real estate sector plays in Lebanon’s economy—the largest contributor to national GDP at 15%—a collapse of major real estate developers can well be the tipping point for the economy to crash.

History might repeat itself.

On several occasions in the past, Lebanon was bailed out by international support when conditions became untenable. Lebanese elites seem to assume that the country remains ‘too small to fail’ for influential regional players.

But with declining interest in the country from Europe and the Gulf countries, this time might well be different.

This time, the war of attrition would not only be lost by Lebanese citizens by suffering through prolonged periods of economic stagnation. As other crucial sectors started to follow the declining trend, uncertainty about the integrity of the pillars of the Lebanese economic model threaten both economic and political stability.

Without concerted effort, Lebanon’s elites cannot win this war either.

This article was first published by the Economic Research Forum.

Note 1: And the mass upheaval (7iraak) that started in October 17, 2019 took every one by surprise. It felt like a miracle that the 2 million protesters all over the cities and the country held only the Lebanese flag and chanted the national anthem. This has been going on for 5 days without interruption.

The government quickly had to pass the 2020 budget with all the associated reforms in a single meeting. The banks were required to deposit $4 bn to get out of that mess and the salaries of all the current and former deputies cut in halves…

But the mass movement is Not satisfied: they lost all confidence in this mafia/militia “leaders” controlled sectarian political system

Note 2: You may read my article on this glorious mass upheaval

CEDRE Reform Program: Learning from Paris III

November 27, 2018 | English |

By Sami Atallah, Mounir Mahmalat and Sami Zoughaib

Lebanon’s poor track record of implementing past ‘Paris’ reform programs looms large over the recent CEDRE conference.

In order to make CEDRE a success and avoid past mistakes, policymakers, international donors, and civil society must understand why previous reform programs failed.

By analyzing the design of the Paris III reform agenda, this policy brief derives guidelines for the formulation of the CEDRE reform program to increase its feasibility and thereby its likelihood of success.

We provide a framework to assess a reform program based on institutional requirements, which categorizes a reform measure according to the degree of involvement of political actors from different parties and institutions.

Applying the framework to the Paris III reform agenda shows that it was poorly designed by failing to reflect the capacity of the Lebanese state to enact reform.

More than half of all reform measures exhibited high requirements and necessitated approval from a parliament that, at the time in 2007, was paralyzed and sidelined over mounting political tensions.

Several measures for fiscal consolidation and privatization were unrealistic and prone to institutional bottlenecks, such as parliamentary paralysis, which could be used by the government to justify inaction.

In total, the government enacted only 14% of all high-requirement and about half of the low requirement reform measures.

For CEDRE, the international community’s approach to designing the reform program must reflect the low capacity of the Lebanese state to enact reforms by focusing on enhancing administrative capacity in public service delivery in order to increase the likelihood of success.

‘Pre-source Curse’ ? Like expecting extra resources from discovering potential revenues

Note: I am pretty sure nobody in Lebanon believed that we will generate wealth from oil and gas. Lebanon knew from early 60’s that it had vast reserves in the sea of oil and has but USA and Israel pressured Lebanon to drop any plans for extracting these resources. Sure, lately Lebanon had undergone plans in that direction (Oil and Gas Initiative) but nothing has materialized in the last decade.

Maybe this a blessing for us because even without oil and gas our environment (air, water, seashore, garbage accumulation…) is already vastly polluted and the pseudo-State of Lebanon is unable to find satisfactory resolution for the basic minimum for our health and the spreading of cancers ( potable waterupgrading sewage network, cleaning our river beds, degradation of our mountains by excessive excavation of our quarries, uncontrolled cement factories...)

Lebanon Seems to Have Fallen Victim to the ‘Presource Curse’

By Sami Atallah, November 2018
A recent World Bank paper by James Cust and David Mihalyi argues that the “curse” befalling states which discover and extract petroleum may in fact be leveled before revenues reach a state’s coffers.
They argue that once a discovery is made—often in anticipation of oil revenues—politicians are inclined to increase spending through borrowing that endangers macroeconomic stability and reduces growth.
This is particularly the case in countries with weak institutions where politicians’ actions are left unchecked.
The authors coined the term “presource curse” to describe such phenomena and build on the well-established concept of a resource curse, which associates oil revenues with lower growth, higher poverty and corruption, and fewer “democratic practices”. (Lebanon fulfills all there predicaments since its creation in 1943)

In reaction to this paper, I was recently invited by the Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative to discuss whether Lebanon is pre-ordained to succumb to a presource curse.

Although Lebanon has yet to make a discovery, it has issued two exploration and production licenses to one consortium led by Total S.A.
I argued that Lebanon is not only pre-ordained to fall subject to a presource curse but also that Lebanon is already experiencing a pre-presource curse.
To be precise, even before an oil discovery has been made, politicians were active in increasing spending through borrowing and dividing the spoils that have consequently undermined macroeconomic stability since the end of the civil war.
They have systematically undermined fiscal discipline by increasing spending on public wages as a result of largely
1) over-staffing the bureaucracy with their clients;
2)contracting public projects with little transparency and accountability by largely dismissing the procurement process; and
3)issuing treasury bills to close the gap between revenues and spending, often at higher interest rates than necessary.
Not only have expenditures risen at a high rate since the 1990s, inefficiency in the use of resources has worsened as Lebanon uses 25% and 13% more input to produce the same health and education outcomes, respectively.
Such irresponsible fiscal policies led to a high chronic deficit to GDP of about 13% from 1992 to 2016, which is much higher than the 3% average of MENA countries and 2.5% average for countries worldwide with similar levels of development as Lebanon.
Consequently, debt to GDP has reached almost 160%, one of the highest in the world.
This was not always the case in Lebanese public finance.
In fact, from 1944 to 1958, Lebanon had high budget surpluses. Even during the period of Chehabism, when state institutions were created to assume more responsibilities, Lebanon’s public finance had moderate surpluses of 2% to 3% to GDP from 1958 to 1970.
The rise of chronic deficits—and consequently public debt—is a relatively recent development, which is largely associated with the political settlement that ended years of civil strife.
Specifically, the change in the balance of power brought about by the Taef Agreement—which resulted in different political institutions being controlled by various confessional groups—institutionalized a new dawn of fiscal mismanagement.
The political elite saw in the new arrangement—which manifested itself in the Troika of the 1990s and the different constellation of power sharing since 2005—the possibility to extract state resources that are beneficial to them at the expense of Lebanon’s citizens.
While this kept the peace, it came at a high economic and fiscal cost.

Prior to the civil war period, Lebanon had the formal and informal mechanisms to constrain spending.

That is not to say that Lebanon was corruption-free but the public finance management was more effectively controlled by the executive authority, which was entrusted to the president and not to the Council of Ministers as it has been in the post-war period.

It is within this context that one needs to evaluate the role of a Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF).

While there is extensive talk about its institutional design—including its role and where it should be housed—this may not be useful when seen from the broader mismanagement of public finances.
Even if Lebanon adopts an SWF with strong fiscal rules to limit politicians’ temptations to tap into it, such rules will likely be skirted or violated given the broader political and institutional context.

To avoid falling further into the abyss, Lebanon must reconfigure its institutions so they can impose fiscal discipline and prevent ineffective spending by dampening politicians’ temptations to personally capitalize at the expense of the state.

The first step toward doing so is bringing public finances in order, by adopting a comprehensive budget according to which all spending is consolidated (i.e., bringing CDR and other agencies’ budgets together), ensuring that public projects are subject to a transparent and competitive procurement process, assessing the effectiveness of spending, and ensuring that any borrowing is being financed at competitive interest rates.
Although these actions are necessary, they are not sufficient.
The fundamental issue is ensuring that checks and balances are in place to limit excessive spending. This requires oversight agencies and institutions to play a key role in ensuring fiscal discipline.
The Court of Accounts must be empowered to oversee budget spending. The procurement department, which has overseen only 10% of public projects, must have the independence to manage the contracting of all public projects.

The parliament has a key role to play. It must assume its responsibilities—both legislative and oversight— bestowed upon it by virtue of the Taef Agreement rather than rubber stamp the work of the executive.

It must oversee the state’s public finances, force the government to pass budget laws, refuse to agree on spending that is Not part of the budget, and evaluate government efficiency and effectiveness in spending.
In addition to the above, the government, if serious, could establish other institutional arrangements to ensure that fiscal discipline is imposed.

The big question is:

Are the political elite, who have divided political power among different confessional groups, able to self-regulate themselves and avoid the temptations of spending oil revenues or borrowing against the forthcoming proceeds?
If history is any indication, they have failed to do so.
The concern is that these “elites” (mostly civil war militia/mafia chiefs) will be further tempted by the oil bonanza, which will allow them to further entrench their interests in the system and indefinitely delay any serious reform.

To be Successful, Proportional Representation must be Accompanied by Party Reform 

Sami Atallah, LCPS executive director. May 2018

While there was genuine hope that adopting a proportional representation system could pave the way for political reform in Lebanon, its impact was largely confined to shifting the balance of power among the same political elite. (Not bad as a first in Lebanon, after 75 years of “Majority takes All” law) in every district

Many of the new faces in Lebanon’s recently-elected parliament are from the same political or social fabric as their predecessors, including many sons of politicians (mosly feudal families).

In some districts, the old guard has returned. Save one candidate, no individuals put forward by new political groups crossed the finish line, while women remain heavily under-represented in the country’s national legislature. (6 women deputy, one of them returned)

Granted, Lebanon’s new electoral law introduced pre-printed ballots for the first time; many lists competed against each other—averaging five in the fifteen districts—though on an unequal footing.

A record number of highly qualified women threw their respective hats into the ring (86 compared to only twelve in 2009).

However, this election exposed several deficiencies in the law, many of which we highlighted in an earlier article and need to be addressed to better represent different segments of society.

This election showed that while electoral reform is necessary, it is not sufficient. (As in all laws that need to be updated every now and then?)

There is an urgent need to address electoral strategies that parties have resorted to in order to manipulate voters’ behavior. This brings us to key questions regarding political party reforms and whether parties can transform themselves from being clientelistic to programmatic by forwarding and promoting policy prescriptions that address people’s concerns.

One of the key provisions of this law concerns the requirement that candidates be named on a single list. It was hoped that this would foster some policy coherence among candidates on the same list, something largely absent in Lebanese politics.

More alarming is the fact that many of these parties ran with and against the same parties in different districts.

For instance, the Amal movement ran with the FPM (who is the FPM again?) in Beirut II, Baabda, and Rachaya but against it in Baalbek-Hermel, Saida-Jezzine, Sour-Saida villages-Zahrani, and Bint Jbeil-Nabatiyeh-Hasbaya-Marjayoun.

The FPM ran with Hezbollah in Beirut II and Baabda but against it in Zahle, Baalbek-Hermel, Sour-Saida villages-Zahrani, and Bint Jbeil-Nabatiyeh-Hasbaya-Marjayoun.

The same holds true for the Future Movement, as it allied with the Lebanese Forces in Chouf-Aley, Akkar-Tripoli, and Baalbek-Hermel, but competed against it in Baabda, Zahleh, and Saida-Jezzine.

If all of this sounds confusing, it merely reflects the complexity of alliances that were struck—putting on hold personal as well as ideological and political differences—with the exclusive aim of winning seats at all costs.

Once lists were formed, the competition between them transformed, in many cases, into competitions among candidates on the same lists, as they scrambled to garner preferential votes.

Candidates sought preferential votes from their co-confessionalists, leading to the electoral system operating similarly to the “Orthodox law”, under which it had been proposed that citizens cast votes exclusively for candidates of the same confession.

This effectively reduces representation to largely contrived confessional concerns, ignoring all other aims, chief among them a national vision.

It also overlooks the fact that improvement in people’s welfare rests not on being governed by co-confessional leaders, but by the ability of citizens to hold their leaders accountable.

Compounding this is a lack of substantive and programmatic platforms on which parties campaign. (Only Hezbollah sounded serious about confronting the spoilage system in our budget and public funds)

While this has never been part of Lebanese political discourse, it was hoped that a PR system would inject some degree of public policy debate addressing socio-economic interests into campaigning.

Indeed, political parties drafted programs but most were too thin on evidence, rife with generalities, and short on specifics.

Most importantly, the programs lacked any sense of vision or direction. (No party dares project into the future the direction of their purpose)

Even when a position was articulated by a party, very few measures were suggested on how to reach a desired end. While many party programs ostensibly support the productive sector, reforming the tax system, and repairing the electricity sector, party members’ alleged consensus ends there and programs continue to languish where they serve parties best: On a web portal.

The lack of programmatic campaigning means political parties in 2018 resorted to what they do best: Coercing voters.

Stories circulated about vote buying, either through cash or the provision of services such as paying school tuition or securing medical treatments.

Others were promised public sector jobs by candidates if family members cast their votes for them.

Candidates sought to scare their constituents using fear of the “other” as a way to mobilize voters.

A Hezbollah MP warned constituents in Baalbek against allowing “others” to win Sunni and Christian seats, in reference to the Future Movement and Lebanese Forces, respectively. (These forces supported the Syrian factions during its civil war, even refusing to kick out these factions from Lebanon Eastern mountain chains)

In return, the minister of interior tried to mobilize Sunnis in Beirut to vote for his party so the Shiites “do not invade” the capital. (Mashnouk blatantly was kissing Saudi Kingdom for support and cash)

In the last few days of the election, Jumblatt, not wanting to take any risks regarding the election outcome, warned his Druze followers that Mukhtara may “fall” if his list was not elected. Of course, FPM chief Gebran Bassil did not miss the chance to associate himself with “the rights of Christians” (what you mean by rights here?).

It is no surprise then that many voters were not eager to go to the polls last Sunday. (Especially those earning a living in the Gulf States, of about 400,000 voters)

While turnout was expected to be higher under a proportional representation system compared to a majoritarian system, this was not the case in Lebanon, where it fell by 2%. (Just 2%? In many districts it barely reached 35%)

Sensing voters’ apathy and worried that low turnout may bring the threshold down and give smaller parties or new political groups the chance to grab a few seats, two of the larger political parties—the Future Movement and Hezbollah—even considered extending the voting period but chose not to as it would threaten to delegitimize the election results.

Instead, the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities issued a decision that classified the vicinity of polling stations as part of voting areas, which meant that any voter who was within that perimeter could vote, even after the official cutoff time. This effectively extended the duration of voting, in violation of the spirit of the law.

In the case of Baalbek-Hermel, the absence of a courtyard in some schools led to a wider interpretation of the vicinity of the polling station, leading to a larger defined area. To compliment this, political parties also opted to mobilize voters in the remaining few hours that polls were opened.

While the Future Movement attempted to do so softly using TV and radio messages, Hezbollah employed its strong organizational capabilities to get voters to the polling booths.

Despite voter apathy, political parties and the media went to great lengths to paint the election as a “wedding”, conveniently disregarding the violations that took place before and during the election.

Voting secrecy was not respected in many instances as elderly voters were carried to polling stations and were assisted by party delegates under the pretext that they are either illiterate or in need of physical assistance to cast their ballot.

Several anecdotes were shared by citizens whose votes apparently evaporated from specific polling stations. (Particularly In district Beirut #2, where Mashnouk and the Future were extremely worried of the turnout. Actually, the governor of Beirut reneged on his signature to permit Independent lists to have representatives in the polling stations)

As for ballot boxes, some went missing, others were not sealed, and one video showed two people rummaging through one. The inability or unwillingness of the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities to address these violations or at least to openly communicate with the public made things worse.

In total, the Lebanese Association for Democratic Election (LADE) reported 950 violations, which is higher than the number recorded in 2009, including 222 that are very serious and involve intimidation.

Furthermore, the commission overseeing the election was hardly present. A lack of resources, lack of serious responsibilities, and the resignation of one of its civil society members cast a shadow on the commission’s credibility in undertaking its role.

The electoral law and the 2018 elections can hardly be called a success.

Political parties and their elite backers managed to steal the election to gain legitimacy for another four years using a range of tricks and gimmicks. While some political parties won a few seats and others lost, the biggest loser in this election is the Lebanese voter, who either voted for or was forced to vote for the same parties that have managed to do little more than impoverish them.

This election cast a shadow on how the PR system was designed and implemented. There is a serious need to revise the electoral law based on the PR system, particularly the high threshold it imposes and the use of preferential voting, which reduced voting in many regions to a confessional contest.

More than ever, there is a need to establish an independent commission with wide responsibilities and the human and financial resources to establish an even playing field across competing groups as well as prevent voter intimidation.

Lastly, there is a strong need for political parties to campaign on public policy proposals as opposed to fiery, fear-inducing discourse laced with the same, played out sectarian themes.

The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies
“…This #election showed that while #electoral reform is necessary, it is Not sufficient. There is an urgent need to address electoral strategies that parties have resorted to in order to manipulate voters’ behavior. This brings us to key questions regarding political party reforms and whether parties can transform themselves from being clientelistic to programmatic by forwarding and promoting

The Fear of Supporting Political Reform

May 24, 2018 | English and Arabic |

Laura Paler, Leslie Marshall, and Sami Atallah

This brief examines the extent to which people are willing to support political reform in Lebanon. Using a randomized petition experiment with 2,496 citizens across the country, it is demonstrated that, although people wish to abolish the confessional political system, they are less willing to express that publicly.

This is largely due to fear of being sanctioned by their family members, community, and political leaders.

Looking at various socio-economic groups, lower income citizens—like their upper income compatriots—do not support sectarian politics.

Lower income citizens group is less willing to take public political action.

Concerning confessional groups, Christians express more support for confessional politics than their Sunni and Shia counterparts. Though Sunnis are less likely than other confessional groups to take public action.

The study suggests that an effort to effect change would either need to target those who are less fearful of voicing support for reform or would need to reduce the level of fear among sections of Lebanese society that otherwise would support reform.

(And what about the upper income compatriots? How did you subdivide this group and their source of wealth? What do they want to change and how?)

(So, No group or religious sect want to express what they want to reform? And who are the reformist citizens? What if you search for the reformists and then conduct the grouping?)

Calling into Question Hezbollah’s Electoral “Takeover” 
Sami Atallah, LCPS executive director. May 2018
On May 6, Lebanon held its first parliamentary election in 9 years (after deputies twice extending their tenure).
To average Lebanese citizens, the results cannot be described as anything other than anti-climactic. Turnout for the election was low despite voters casting their ballots according to a new hybrid proportional representation system, under which turnout is usually higher.
Only a slightly higher number of women will enter the next parliament 6 compared to 2009.
New, independent groups were not able to propel more than a single candidate to victory.

Despite all these issues surrounding the elections and its results, some foreign observers and domestic actors have reduced the outcome to an abrupt and final Hezbollah takeover of the country. This interpretation is both misleading and largely misses the point of what Hezbollah has in fact gained.

Lost in this maze of analysis is the fact that the party which scored the biggest win, an anti-Hezbollah party. is the Lebanese Forces (LF) with a block of 15 deputies. (Very wrong claim. It is the Tayyar of President Michel Aoun with a block 29 deputies).

The LF managed to double their number of seats from eight to 15 and expanded their representation from five districts in 2009 to thirteen in 2018. By snatching ten Maronite seats, they have deluded the Free Patriotic Movement’s (FPM) claim of being the party which best and most powerfully represents Christian interests across the country. (Apparently, Samir is catching the math fever of counting wrong lately)

At the other end of the spectrum, the current prime minister’s party, the Future Movement, saw its bloc dwindle from being the largest with thirty-four seats to twenty. The loss of five Sunni seats weakens the prime minister’s leadership in the Sunni community as his party controls only 17 out of 27 Sunni seats. In Beirut II district, his party lost five out of the eleven seats, four of them to Hezbollah and Hezbollah-allied parties.

Although the FPM (the only party that participated with 43 candidates in all 15 districts) increased the size of its bloc by two seats to reach twenty-nine, making it the largest bloc in parliament, its victory is not as ironclad as claimed by Gebran Bassil, the FPM’s leader. The party controls only thirteen Maronite seats, six fewer than in 2009. The party was also compelled to nominate eleven non-party members to ensure victory in various districts.

Hezbollah, where all foreign eyes are trained, gained one seat.

Although Hezbollah and its allies won a seat in Zahle and Beirut II, it lost a few seats in Baabda and Baalbeck, its own backyard.
Hezbollah victory rests not in the size of its bloc but in sweeping all twenty-seven Shiite seats with the Amal movement, which itself grabbed seventeen seats.
(Mind you that the tacit agreement Parliament allocate to the Parliament  27 Shi3a, 27 Sunni deputies and 10 Druze and othe Muslem minorities. All the Christians sects have 50% of the seats or 64)

It secured victory for five Sunni MPs who provide it with cross-sectarian cover. In terms of the popular vote, Hezbollah and Amal lists garnered 35% of ballots cast in 2018. While a large section of its constituents willingly support it, Hezbollah’s success lies in its organizational capacity to mobilize voters on election day.  (Hezbollah candidates garnered 72% of the Shi3a voters)

Indeed, Hezbollah, Amal, and other smaller parties hold one-third of parliament seats. Adding the FPM to their camp would numerically give them the upper hand in parliament.

But the nature of politics in Lebanon dictates that Hezbollah and their allies will not simply run roughshod over the country using the parliament.
For one, President Michael Aoun’s agenda may deviate from that of Hezbollah now that he resides in Baabda and is entitled to name a share of the government’s cabinet posts. He will likely be keen to preserve the state and its institutions, possibly to a degree than might not be convenient for Hezbollah.
Two, the contemporary iteration of the FPM reached an agreement with the Future Movement only last year, according to which Aoun was elected president and in return Hariri headed the government. In the last year and a half, this relationship evolved in such a way that both parties worked closely on several issues.
Even electorally, Hariri called on his supporters in Batroun to give their preferential vote to Bassil, who has struggled to win a parliamentary seat since 2005.

The tension between the FPM and the Amal movement will further complicate the FPM’s relationship with Hezbollah in the coming weeks, not the least because it remains unclear whether the FPM will endorse Amal leader Nabih Berri’s candidacy to become, once again, the parliament speaker. (Chairman of Parliament since 1991)

All signs point to anything but smooth sailing in the formation of a government, a process which could very well last late into the summer if political haggling and wrangling is employed to full effect. (Hezbollah is Not about to let this kind of delay and has his own pressure means on Berry and allies)

Hezbollah’s largely coherent bloc will strengthen its bargaining position and it will be able to veto nominations and laws that are not to its liking, (same with the largest block of the President.

The nature of the political system will force Hezbollah to engage in wheeling and dealing with other parties (as it has done for decades now?). Its ability to control the state is constrained by rival parties as well as the confessional quota of the country. Also, it is not in the interest of Hezbollah to try to dominate the political scene for two reasons.

One, pushing too hard may antagonize other political groups to Hezbollah’s own detriment. Engaged in Syria, Hezbollah would likely not want to aggravate the domestic situation. This could lead to instability which is something to be avoided domestically for its own sake.

Two, assuming too much control of state institutions via ministerial portfolios may backfire, especially if they fail to deliver. (So far, Hezbollah didn’t care much on the “value” of the portfolio, as long as they are in the government to express his opinions and have a say on the decisions)

During the election, Hezbollah made several promises to fight corruption—reflecting unease among its constituents—but an anti-corruption battle is very hard to win in Lebanon. (It is harder than to fight a US military invasion on Lebanon, but Hezbollah has already constituted a special team for that purpose and is very determined in the decision to fighting all kinds of corruptions and robbing the State money)

In the sense that Hezbollah derives its power, not from the number of seats it holds in the parliament, but from its ability to mobilize its followers and partisans; its strong and consistent foreign backing; and its special relationship with state security and intelligence agencies, the party has fortified itself with this win. How the party uses this power, which it possessed prior to Sunday’s election, will determine the course of future events. (It had this power before the election since 2006)

To see the election outcome through the prism of an outright Hezbollah victory is reductionist and misses the point. Earlier this week, Israel carried out its largest military operation targeting Syrian soil in decades, action which comes on the heels of Trump declaring that the United States will no longer adhere to its commitments under the Iran nuclear deal.

The tacit argument being made by those touting the notion that Hezbollah has seized control in Lebanon, and explicitly by many Israeli political and military leaders, is that the Lebanese state is a legitimate target in any future conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

Apart from engaging in lazy and incomplete analysis, there can be no other informed interpretation of attempts to promulgate the flawed assertion that Lebanon is now, suddenly, under the control of a single political party.

Granted, the majority in parliament among Hezbollah and their allies likely means that the party’s weapons will not be a focus of action in the legislature but that begs the question of whether they ever were in the first place.

Hezbollah’s accumulation and retention of arms stems from the signing of the Taef Accord, consecutive governments that tacitly approved of the party keeping their weapons, in addition to regional actors such as Iran supporting the party both materially and rhetorically.

So, where does this largely non-contextualized focus on Hezbollah’s electoral achievements leave us?

Indeed, Hezbollah has solidified its position in parliament. However, this is a marginal addition to its power given the unwillingness of MPs to fully exercise the parliament’s legislative and oversight roles.

No keen Lebanon watcher should gloss over the fact that their ability to dictate policy is limited by a range of factors, prime among them Lebanon’s confessional system and fluid party politics.

While the next ministerial statement will likely not denounce Hezbollah’s arms, let’s not lose sight of the fact that a regional consensus would first be necessary to level a final decision on that contentious matter.

Note: You may read  My report and analysis of Lebanon election

Lebanon Parliament Never had time to hold government accountable, or legislate during 9 years?

The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies

As part of LCPS’s work on monitoring the Lebanese Parliament, we are publishing a series of articles on the performance of the country’s national legislative body.

These articles will focus on issues ranging from coherence among aligned parties and MPs, to the relationship lawmakers have with constituents. 

This article examines the ability of MPs to effectively participate in the decision-making process by engaging in legislative and oversight sessions as well as their willingness to exert effort to draft laws that meet citizens’ concerns and needs.

For parliamentarians to legislate and oversee the performance of the government, they should at least take part in parliamentary sessions and parliamentary committees in which draft laws are debated, studied, and reviewed.

Looking closely at their performance over the last nine years, little effort has been exerted by MPs.

Although there has been a high attendance rate in legislative sessions, only a fraction of MPs actually participated in discussions.

Many MPs are less keen to hold the government accountable as their attendance rate in oversight sessions is low.

Interestingly, party leaders do not often attend or participate in parliamentary sessions.

Committees meet infrequently, a rate which should be considered low given the challenges that Lebanese face.

As part of a larger project that the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) launched on the performance of the parliament, we examined the attendance and participation rate of 128 MPs over twenty-four legislative and oversight sessions from June 2009 to April 2017.

Keeping in mind that performance should not be confined to attendance and participation, the number and content of draft laws proposed by MPs is far more important.

Since only draft laws made public are those which are subject to deliberation, such data is misleading and hence was excluded from the performance measurement. In any case, looking closely at these deliberations, the data offers interesting findings.

Consider that although the collective attendance rate for all MPs stands at 84%, their participation rate in the discussion is about 37%.

Only one-third of MPs who are present in sessions contribute to the discussion. Given that MPs are only allowed to skip two sessions without justification, 85 MPs violated this rule—that is they did not provide any excuse—without any recourse.

More precisely, 56 MPs skipped up to three sessions, beyond the two granted by the bylaws, without excuse.

In fact, 14 MPs did not attend ten or more sessions out of the twenty-four sessions and one MP skipped 19 sessions altogether.

When zooming in on oversight sessions, it is interesting to note that the attendance rate is lower in comparison to legislative sessions and the parliament did not hold the 9 required oversight sessions; opting instead to hold only five.

According to the bylaws, for every three legislative sessions, the parliament must hold one oversight session.

Even when sessions were held, they were largely “for show”, that is MPs ask the government and ministers few questions and the government ignores their inquiries. Despite claims of corruption, MPs threats are hollow as no follow-up action is taken.

Using this data, we created a performance index which averages attendance and participation rates.

The average score of the 128 MPs was 6 out of 10.

Two interesting results emerge.

First, looking at the performance of each bloc, the Loyalty for the Resistance bloc—led by Hezbollah—scores highest with 6.6 while the Democratic Gathering led by the Progressive Socialist Party scores the lowest with 4.8.

The two parties that have the lowest variation within their bloc—meaning the difference between the highest and lowest scorer is smallest—are the Kataeb and the Loyalty for the Resistance bloc.

Second, while the highest scorers are from different blocs, five of the fifteen lowest scorers are party heads: Talal Arslan, Saad Hariri, Suleiman Frangieh, Michel Aoun, and Walid Jumblatt.

Even when they do attend, their participation rate, on average, hovers around 15%. This suggests that debate over policy issues does not take place in the parliament and instead is the result of wheeling and dealing elsewhere.

In fact, MPs do not see their main role as legislating or overseeing the executive.

When we interviewed 65 MPs to better understand their policy positions, we asked them how they spend their time in office. Almost 70% of them have stated that they spend their time interacting with voters, talking to the media, and interacting with other parties, while only 30% of their time is dedicated to legislating and holding government accountable.

The poor record of MPs is not confined to participation in the general sessions as it is also reflected in the number of parliamentary committee meetings held during this period.

Using publicly available data collected from 2010 to 2014 in the sixteen parliamentary committees where draft laws are studied and debated, it was determined that they met, on average, 323 times per year.

However, when one looks closely at the numbers, this totals about one and a half meetings per month per committee.

Apart from the administration and justice committee, the frequency with which committees meet is dismal. To put this in context, the environment committee only managed to meet six times per year despite the garbage crisis. As for the ICT committee, its members did not find it necessary to meet more than three times per year.

Once again, MPs do not seem up to the task of assuming their legislative and oversight roles. Attendance and participation are necessary but not sufficient to produce relevant laws and hold government accountable, meaning many MPs are falling short of carrying out their basic duties.

It is likely that action on the part of MPs’ respective constituents could spur Lebanon’s legislators to pay more attention to issues that matter to citizens and act as a check on the government by conducting oversight.

“Lebanese MPs: Little Time to Legislate and Hold Government Accountable”
By Sami Atallah

As part of LCPS’s work on monitoring the Lebanese Parliament, we are publishing a series of articles on the performance of the country’s national legislative body.

Why Politicians in Lebanon Don’t Know the Issues?

Most of them don’t even read or participate in the discussions

April 2018

Sami Atallah and Mohamad Diab, respectively LCPS executive director and LCPS research associate

As part of LCPS’s work (Lebanese Center for Policy Studies) on monitoring the Lebanese Parliament, we are publishing a series of articles on the performance of the country’s national legislative body. These articles will focus on issues ranging from coherence among aligned parties and MPs, to the relationship lawmakers have with constituents. 

This article assesses MP’s stated positions on an array of policy issues to determine which issues they agree on, those on which they disagree, and the extent to which their positions are consistent with those of their party. 

In the midst of election season, political parties have unleashed a series of policy promises ranging from decentralization to balanced development and from universal healthcare to pension reform.

While it hardly takes any effort for them to express such policy views, explaining how to best achieve them is an entirely different task.

It requires that politicians have a minimum level of policy knowledge as well as consistency across a number of inter-related issues for their promises to be credible.

To call for a specific policy such as providing universal healthcare or fighting poverty, political parties must propose fiscal measures to meet those goals.

As part of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies’ work on the parliament, we sought to identify the policy positions of MPs over a set of 27  issues—including decentralization, taxes, poverty, healthcare, support for the productive sector, rental laws, public services, public property, women’s rights, and capital punishment, among others—as well as determine the level of commitment to advocating for these policies by examining their consistency across related policies.

To accomplish this, we interviewed 65 MPs from different political parties—those who have accepted to see us—out of 128 legislators in 2015 and 2016 to ask them what their policy preferences are.

At first glance, MPs seem to be very supportive of providing universal healthcare to citizens, widening  decentralization to the qada level, mitigating social disparities, protecting public property, reducing or even annulling taxes on basic consumption goods, and bestowing upon women the right to pass on Lebanese nationality to their spouses and children. However, their endorsement fades as one takes a deeper look at their preferences in relation to other policies.

Consider decentralization.

Although MPs strongly support the establishment of qada councils (district) , there is less consensus across political blocs regarding their mandates.

Some MPs support wide responsibilities being entrusted to qada councils so they can develop and implement projects, while others believe that their mandates should be confined to few responsibilities. Holding opposing views is not inherently problematic but the inconsistency shown by MPs when asked about the fiscal resources that should be entrusted to the qada councils is worrying.

When we compared MPs’ stated positions on qada’s responsibilities versus fiscal resources to be granted to these qadas, several issues emerged.

One-quarter of interviewed MPs had an inconsistent view on decentralization. They favored limited authority to qada councils but would grant them considerable fiscal resources, which is not commensurate with their responsibilities.

Another 21 MPs—one-third of those interviewed—seem to be overzealous about decentralization to the extent that it is detrimental to the state as they favor granting qada councils wide authority while also providing them with considerably more fiscal resources than required, exceeding the 35% ratio international benchmark. Clearly, there is at best lack of clarity on how to move forward on decentralization.

On another set of policies, MPs strongly support state efforts to mitigate social disparities and develop comprehensive poverty programs but they are not willing to complement them with necessary policies to reach those ends.

For instance, mitigating social disparities can be dealt with in various ways such as reducing consumption taxes, increasing income or profit taxes, developing poverty programs, or revising the rental law of 2014 or any combination of the above.

Out of the 43 MPs who support reducing social disparities, only twenty-nine are willing to reduce consumption taxes, which could help reduce the gap since consumption tax is regressive. Only twenty-four are willing to increase taxes on income and profits,[1] and only seventeen want to annul the rental law of 2014.

In other instances, MPs across the political spectrum may hold similar policy views but this convergence has not been capitalized on to become a law.

Take for example healthcare.

While MPs overwhelmingly supported providing universal healthcare to citizens, this consensus failed to materialize into a policy that benefits citizens.

In the meantime, the rental law, which was passed in 2014 by parliament, seems to be the most controversial out of the twenty-seven issues with the least degree of consensus among the MPs that we have met.

Roughly one-third of MPs were supportive of the 2014 rental law and the remaining two-thirds were either opposed or neutral. With such narrow support, it is surprising that the law mustered enough votes.

So how is it that an issue with little effective support becomes a law whereas universal health care which enjoys a high level of consensus fails to materialize?

This casts a big shadow either on the honesty of their policy positions during the interview or in their ability to capitalize on consensus and transform it into a policy that addresses peoples’ needs.

While MPs and current candidates will be juggling policy positions, they are hardly credible unless specifics are provided.

Certainly, some of these MPs could engage in substantive and policy-based dialogue with the public and their legislative colleagues. Yet, many have demonstrated that in their time as lawmakers, (over at least 9 years) they clearly do not understand the issues at hand or are not willing to work in the public interest.

Ameliorating this would likely require a shift—if ever so gradual—among the electorate, one which demands competency among the country’s elected leaders. Then it could be expected that candidates and parties adopt policy platforms and clearly favor specific policies during political campaigns.

[1] In fact, only 20 out of 43 MPs are willing to reduce consumption tax and increase capital tax. In effect, this gives little support for income gap mitigation.

Lebanese Elections: Clientelism as a Strategy to Garner Votes

Sami Atallah and Zeina El-Helou, respectively LCPS executive director and researcher and development consultant. March 2018

Lebanon’s adoption of a proportional representation (PR) system is seen by many as a step in the direction of fostering a more representative system to select some of the most important decision makers in the country.

Members of parliament (MP) are constitutionally endowed with the authority to collectively elect a president, issue a vote of confidence to new governments, set national policies including the budget, and hold the government accountable using its oversight function, among other duties.

Yet, the new electoral law is being undermined by some of its most central tenets, which preserve clientielistic networks through, among other factors, requiring that a preferential vote be cast and the redrawing of districts in concert with the parliament’s confessional quota.

Taking all this into consideration, it behooves us to consider those power structures and tactics that underlie our elections.

It should also be recognized that as much as the electoral law is crucial to determining the outcome of an election, electoral behavior will have an equal say on the outcome, if not more.

More to the point, how parties and candidates manage their campaigns, mobilize and persuade voters, manipulate the media, shape opinions, and buy votes are largely ignored. (The law was delayed an entire year to include a few reforms, but no reforms were discussed or considered on the law)

Many of these tricks are unknown by the wider public. (For example, a candidate must be able to deposit $100,000 in a bank: a condition that excludes most of the people in this poor economy, and this requirement was never made public)

While this article will not highlight all the methods that parties and politicians employ to win elections, it does look into the clientelistic relationship that links parties and candidates to voters whereby parties or politicians provide services or jobs to voters in return for their political loyalty.

While some people vote based on their sectarian beliefs or ideological convictions, many others support one party or candidate over another based on the services provided to constituents or the cash handed out on election day.

In fact, this provision of services and even outright vote buying goes hand in hand with the majoritarian electoral system that was in place. That is, once parties agree on how to gerrymander electoral districts to their own liking under a majoritarian system, they only need to mobilize a certain number of voters from within these districts to be elected.

PR should in theory make gerrymandering harder, particularly with large districts in which every vote counts.

Such a system would make vote buying and the provision of services much more expensive, meaning political parties would be forced to develop new strategies to mobilize voters.

However, the new Lebanese electoral law has managed to sustain some key facets of clientelism, namely the preferential vote, relaxing electoral spending limits, inflating the number of registered election delegates, and permitting charitable organizations to offer quid pro quo services during elections.

With the support of Konrad Adenauer Foundation, LCPS conducted focus groups with voters in regions across the country, taking into account gender, age group, sect, income level, and the competitiveness of the district.

Some of the key findings are synthesized here.

For one, while most participants would like to vote for parties and candidates with national political visions, most opt for existing sectarian parties out of fear of other groups.

Hence, many participants made their electoral decision out of a perceived need to protect their own community based on the myth of being threatened as a confessional group— in terms of both physical and resource-based security—by other groups.

Two, citizens expect their MPs to provide them with targeted services, jobs, and other favors, especially since state institutions have failed in designing and implementing policies that make public goods available for everyone, such as jobs opportunities, free and quality education, and universal health coverage.

MPs, on the other hand, prefer to provide targeted goods to individuals and families rather than design policies that serve those communities and regions which are most in need.

According to focus group participants, politicians give high-value goods as rewards for active, long-term support from dedicated partisans, especially those who have leverage over large groups of voters. In some instances, politicians provide services to voters with influence, even if they are not party loyalists.

High-value goods mainly include jobs and scholarships, and to a lesser extent, payments for medical care.

Political parties also threaten to deny or withdraw these services from voters who fail or cease to support the candidate or party in question, especially in areas where residents are highly dependent on one powerful party to provide employment and educational or health services.

By comparison, low-value goods such as food and petty cash are distributed to weakly affiliated and persuadable voters with limited resources and significant material needs. These goods are sometimes provided on a regular basis, particularly if the party has a strong distribution system, but appear more frequently and in greater quantity in the months leading up to elections, as a form of vote buying.

Parties enlist community leaders such as mayors and mukhtars as brokers (who happen to be tribal elders in most of the cases, especially in rural and periphery areas) to identify and approach persuadable voters in their communities for the purposes of vote buying.

It is important to note that in most cases, services are not supplied voluntarily by parties, but are demanded by citizens themselves. Parties also target large families as they have more votes to deliver than smaller ones.

The former electoral law 25/2008 made these abuses ‘legitimate’ as it stipulates under article 59 that ‘financial donations including service provision or payment of money to voters such as in-kind and cash donations and support to individuals, charity, social, cultural, family, religious organizations or other, or sports clubs and all non-public institutions shall be prohibited during the campaign period, except for those granted by candidates or institutions owned or run by candidates who have been doing so on a regular basis for not less than three years prior to the commencement of the electoral campaign.

This counter-intuitive law not only legitimizes clientelism, but also provides an advantage to long-term clientelistic-based parties and candidates over newcomers to the system.

While some contend that clientelism does provide services to citizens when the state falls short in doing so, it is argued that the state—managed by the same governing elite—is prevented from doing so, giving political parties the opportunity to manipulate the election in their favor by effectively holding voters hostage. In this way, clientelism undermines both democracy and development.

For one, the notion that citizens are able to elect their representative or hold them accountable has been undermined as a result of this clientelistic network, where now it is parties that reward or punish voters for their vote choice.

This behavior has impacted development as the political elite have no incentives to provide or ensure development for the country since they managed to be elected by buying votes and providing some services to specific groups of people in their districts under a majoritarian system.

Clientelism cannot actually improve voters’ socio-economic condition beyond dolling out some cash or favors to voters, which provides only a temporary boost in income. In fact, we argue and it should be recognized that the opposite is true, namely that these campaign strategies impoverish people by denying them services that they ought to have access to as a right.

Note: I contend that we have No political parties in tiny Lebanon: they are all funded and directed by foreign State governments. The same goes to local news media.




January 2023

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