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Do elections in Lebanon matter?

Christiana Parreira

Lebanon is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on May 15, 2022, for the first time since nationwide protests forced the resignation of the government in October 2019. Voters will elect 128 legislators spread across 15 multi-member districts. These MPs will subsequently nominate a prime minister, approve a new cabinet, and vote for a new president once the term of the current president Michel Aoun expires in October of this year. 

In previous national elections held in 2009 and 2018, a small set of incumbent parties won almost every seat even as their poor performance in office evoked broad public dissatisfaction and led to protest mobilization. Do the discrepancies between these election results and protest mobilization, among other forms of political expression suggest that electoral politics do not matter? This question has implications for Lebanon’s nascent political opposition and ordinary citizens, who must decide whether electoral participation is worthwhile amid increasing socioeconomic precariousness. 

While Lebanon’s elections are formally free, barriers to entry for opposition candidates are extraordinarily high. This is not only because of how incumbent parties flout formal institutions (e.g. vote buying and voter intimidation), but also because of how they work within such institutions (e.g. capture of state resources). While the former strategies clearly harm the integrity of elections, the latter type of intervention is more consequential insofar as it allows incumbents to consolidate power through, not despite democratic institutions. Differently put, incumbent parties’ cartel-like behavior in monopolizing state resources has rendered Lebanon a procedural democracy on paper, but an autocracy in practice. 

Can new opposition movements challenge Lebanon’s incumbent “party cartel” at the ballot box? Analogous party systems have been defeated in other contexts. That said, these instances of electoral defeat have been characterized by several key features. Most party cartels have been defeated over multiple electoral cycles, in tandem with institutional reform and via organizationally strong parties with ties to labor. These conditions suggest that Lebanon’s electoral opposition is engaged in an uphill battle to win the elections, even within the scope of similar political systems. 

Are elections in Lebanon “free and fair”?

While many autocratic regimes also hold regular elections, they are generally characterized by broad violations of electoral institutions. These include voter intimidation; repression of campaigning or voting; and ballot manipulation. Lebanon’s incumbent elites do engage in some of these behaviors: various governing parties, for example, are associated with harassment and intimidation of opposition candidates and voters.1 Additionally, reports of illegal vote-buying on the part of incumbent parties are commonplace: survey experimental evidence shows that just over half of all voting-age Lebanese citizens have received some form of material payment in exchange for their vote.2

On the other hand, full-fledged electoral fraud has not been proven or widely alleged in recent Lebanese elections. Social scientists have also found mixed evidence that vote-buying consistently changes voters’ opinions.3 Moreover, many electoral democracies where it is a common practice to buy votes witness higher levels of electoral turnover and party system instability than in Lebanon. Therefore, the extraordinary advantage Lebanon’s incumbent parties enjoy is not best explained by these extra-legal interventions.

Violations of Lebanon’s electoral institutions are arguably less impactful on election results than the elite behavior that occurs within, and is often even facilitated by those institutions. In Lebanon, incumbent parties engage not only in vote-buying, but also in the far more comprehensive monopolization of state resources for the purpose of retaining electoral power. Such resources include the funding earmarked for the provision of social welfare and basic infrastructure, along with employment within the public sector.4 By partnering in successive “national unity” or “party cartel” governments to jointly control these resources and allocate them based on electoral loyalty, incumbent parties have relied on institutions designed to facilitate democratic accountability to effectively extinguish it. 

How party cartel systems rule and collapse

Since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, state resources have gradually come under the monopolistic control of a small set of governing parties, all of which have participated in national unity governments (with rare exceptions) since 2005. Such “party cartel” systems often develop in the aftermath of civil war or democratic transitions, usually (at least initially) to provide a kind of reassurance against excessive political competition that could breed violence.5 Party cartel systems have also formed in Indonesia, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Colombia, among other countries. Because party cartels govern poorly by design, they tend to sow the seeds of their own destruction. In the aforementioned cases, party cartels eventually lost much of their electoral popularity, with three key features that played in their demise. First, most cartels were gradually defeated over multiple electoral cycles, in tandem with consistent protest mobilization and civil society pressure. In Bolivia, the cartel gradually lost power in elections in 1997, 2002, and 2005. This culminated in the resignation of the president in 2005 and election of Evo Morales several months later.6 Similarly, the party cartel in Colombia gradually lost popularity in elections throughout the 1990s, 

and in Indonesia throughout the early 2000s.7 This suggests that Lebanon’s electoral opposition, which first competed in elections in 2018, may need several electoral cycles to gain traction. 

Second, electoral opposition against party cartels often succeeded in the wake of the implementation of a set of reforms, chiefly decentralization. In Bolivia, Colombia, and Venezuela, party cartels faced popular pressure to institute decentralization, and they eventually handed autonomy to local governments at the expense of the cartel-controlled central state.8 Additionally, in the Indonesian and Bolivian cases, the party cartel lost power shortly after electoral reforms that secured direct election of the president (in Indonesia) and certain congressional representatives (in Bolivia).9  Collectively, these reforms – instituted by the cartels themselves – set in motion unintended events that culminated in their defeat. While numerous scholars have noted that Lebanon’s electoral system and heavily centralized governance structure advantages governing parties, reform efforts have been largely unsuccessful. 10

Third, party cartels have been most effectively challenged by strong opposition parties with mass support and ties to labor. In Indonesia, interestingly, these factors were not present – while the cartel declined in popularity, no clear alternatives emerged to replace it in key positions of government, and opposition parties remain fragmented. 11 In Bolivia, by contrast, Evo Morales’ Movement for Socialism utilized populist rhetoric to unite aggrieved groups from disparate regional and ethnic groups. Additionally, the Bolivian labor movement played a key role in anti-cartel mobilization after traditional leftist parties had been coopted into the party cartel and, consequently, delegitimized.12 In this respect, Lebanon more closely resembles the Indonesian case at this point: new opposition parties are fragmented and loosely institutionalized, while the labor movement remains largely coopted by the party cartel. 13

In the lead-up to the May 2022 elections, Lebanon’s electoral opposition is more organizationally complex and better developed than at any point in the post-civil war era. New groups have ignited unprecedented electoral competition in many districts, creating a cleavage in popular discourse between the governing “regime” and its “opposition” – including fierce contestation over the meaning and boundaries of those categories. However, the structural barriers these electoral opposition groups face remain extraordinarily high. A comparative perspective suggests that while such coalitions can be defeated at the ballot box, the conditions under which this usually occurs are yet to ripen in the Lebanese context.

1. For a discussion of previous election violations, see the Lebanese Association for Democratic Election’s report, “Observation Mission of 2018 Parliamentary Elections.” (2018). 
2. Corstange, Daniel. “Vote Trafficking in Lebanon.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 44, no. 3 (2012): 483–505.
3. Hicken, Allen, and Noah L. Nathan. “Clientelism’s Red Herrings: Dead Ends and New Directions in the Study of Non-Programmatic Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science 23 (2019): 277–94.
4. Leenders, Reinoud. Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State-Building in Postwar Lebanon. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012; Salloukh, Bassel F. “Taif and the Lebanese State: The Political Economy of a Very Sectarian Public Sector.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 25, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 43–60.
5. Slater, Dan, and Erica Simmons. “Coping by Colluding: Political Uncertainty and Promiscuous Powersharing in Indonesia and Bolivia.” Comparative Political Studies 46, no. 11 (2012): 1366–93.
6. Slater and Simmons (2012).
7. Morgan, Jana. Bankrupt Representation and Party System Collapse. Penn State Press, 2011.
8. Ibid.
9. Slater and Simmons (2012).
10. For discussion of state centralization in Lebanon, see Harb, Mona, and Sami Atallah. “Lebanon: A Fragmented and Incomplete Decentralization.” In Local Governments and Public Goods: Assessing Decentralization in the Arab World. Beirut: Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, 2015.
11. Slater, Dan. “Party Cartelization, Indonesian-Style: Presidential Power-Sharing and the Contingency of Democratic Opposition.” Journal of East Asian Studies 18, no. 1 (2018): 23–46.
12. Slater and Simmons (2012). Following Morales’ rise to power, his government’s relationship with the labor movement became increasingly contentious.
13. For a discussion of opposition movements and their disparate policy positions, see El Kak, Nadim, and Sami Atallah. “Lebanon’s Political Alternatives.” The Policy Initiative (2022). For discussion of the absence of labor in recent anti-cartel mobilization, see Bou Khater, Lea. “Did Someone Say Workers?” The Public Source (2020). 

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