The resilience of the status quo: Why the Lebanese political system doesn’t elect women

November 25, 2019

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By Laudy Issa


A newly-launched policy brief from Hivos WE4L partner Lebanon Support mapped out why the Lebanese political status quo was reproduced in the country’s 2018 elections, despite widespread citizen frustration.

In May 2018, Lebanese parliamentary elections were held after nearly a decade-long halt. New actors from civil society movements mobilized under civil electoral lists, as well as a record 86 female candidates registering to vote.

Despite “high levels of dissatisfaction with electoral institutions and government performance” among voters, 48 of the 74 candidates already on the Parliament were re-elected. Only one out of 128 seats was won by an independent civil society candidate. Women also suffered at the hands of the maintenance of the status quo, taking up only 6 seats in the newly-elected Parliament as compared to 4 in 2009.

Lebanon Support’s new policy brief explored the lack of meaningful change for women in politics and for new civil society actors, by conducting 6 pre-election and 6 post-election focus group interviews. The independent, non-governmental organization looked at perceptions of the new electoral law, the performance of new civil society lists and movements, advantages that traditional parties had, and the extralegal manipulation of the law.

The new electoral law restricted voters’ choices

The new electoral law consolidated the 26 previous electoral districts into 15 major districts, distributed 128 seats among 11 different confessions, and replaced a traditional block vote structure by a new proportional representation system with a preferential vote. 

“The new law –particularly the preferential vote– personalised aspects of the campaign by pushing voters to support only a single candidate even if they did not like other candidates on the list or what the list represented,” reads the policy brief from the Hivos WE4L partner.

The new law meant that voters could not choose to vote for candidates from different lists, which also encouraged partisan collusion. 

“We were fooled, like [the parties] are taunting us, only to do what serves their own interests,” said one frustrated participant to Lebanon Support after observing that competing sectarian parties formulated lists together to increase their share of the electoral threshold –the minimum amount of votes required before they become entitled to representation.

Citizens saw that the deceitful agreements came at the expense of better political plans of action, expressing dissatisfaction and a lack of faith in the ability of the system to positively change. The elections ultimately reproduced the Lebanese political system based on sectarianism and clientelism, with voters saying the preferential vote bounded them to prominent local elites who could offer incentives to them. This could also signify why voters were specifically less likely to cast their preferential votes to female candidates, who were much less likely to be already in power and to be able to offer the same incentives that the male candidates in power could.

Lebanon Support recommends an independent review of the electoral law, one that puts the input of Lebanese citizens at the forefront and that takes into consideration the need for temporary special measures that increase female participation.

Because of the status quo, voters were skeptical about new candidates

The language used by participants in the focus group to describe their ideal candidates mimicked the language used by new independent candidates on civil society lists. Voters expressed support for officials who would renew the nation and offer “a social contract built on needs and rights.”

Despite that, voters used their lack of familiarity with the people on these lists as a reason for why they could not succeed or be trusted. Those in the focus group discussed a form of “tactical voting” that’s a product of the system itself, which includes national elites who would not allow the “clean” and “naive” new lists to implement the changes they sought.

When Lebanon Support asked about the gap between voters’ ideal candidates and those they actually supported, those in the focus groups deflected the blame to obstruction from party rivals outside their sects. The WE4L partner noted that this was often the case among those who supported the Lebanese Forces or the Free Patriotic Movement.

The policy brief noted the ability of national political parties’ ability to “co-opt the language of reform” better than new actors. Status-quo parties hijacked voters’ corruption and inefficiency concerns by amplifying how they incorporated new candidates into their leagues. 

On the other hand, civil society lists were lost between developing clear platforms that might alienate some supporters and maintaining a united front, according to Lebanon Support.

“The image of a reforming party able to provide voters with a clear patron and material resources stands in contrast to the absence of a coherent message or alternative proposed by civil society lists,” reads the policy brief.

Established figures offered incentives to voters that the system cannot

Traditional political parties enjoy access to resources that political newcomers and independent figures do not, with the first of these resources being the money and networks that provide them with access to proper advertising.

Most traditional media outlets in Lebanon are financially-supported by political factions, significantly reducing their campaign costs and providing them with a degree of access to the public that other candidates did not have. During the 2018 elections, television interviews were estimated to cost $150,000, radio interviews cost around $2,500, and billboards cost between $1,000 and $3,000 per day.

A second key resource is a variety of services, such as covering tuition fees, paying for medical care, and providing job opportunities, offered because of their positionality within the state. With the positive perception of both pre-existing wealth and the ability to provide clientelistic services that the government as a whole could not, the advantage of well-established political parties is reinforced in elections.

“I will vote for Elias Bou Saab,” said one participant. “He is a good man, with a lot of connections, and my son should be entering the university soon, so I can tell him that I voted for him and he can support my son’s tuition fees.”

While participants acknowledged that these services should be provided by the government itself, they did not believe in the state’s ability to do so fairly and efficiently. They also saw that independent and female candidates lacked that ability as well.

Financially, Lebanon Supports suggested the development of legislation that strengthens the Supervisory Committee for Elections, gives them the power to sanction campaign and media violations, and obligates the release of candidates’ financial campaign reports.

Status-quo parties violated the electoral law when their resources weren’t enough

The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, another Hivos WE4L partner that monitors democracy in elections, reported over 7,000 violations of the electoral law in May 2018. The violations include using public places, places of worship, and schools for electoral campaigning, proceeding with campaigning during times of electoral silence, and intimidating and threatening voters and election officials with violence.

When members of the well-established Lebanese Forces (LF) clashed with Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) ally Myriam Skaff’s “Popular Bloc” during the elections, LF leader Samir Geagea expressed pride towards his supporters.

“They may spend a night in jail, but jail is for men,” said Geagea, as acknowledged in the Lebanon Support policy brief. A Hivos survey on Lebanese national perceptions of women in leadership positions also puts the mentality in perspective, whereby politics is viewed as “corrupt” and “dirty” work that “does not fit in for the morally superior woman.”

When confronted with accusations of these violations, parties claimed that their opponents were serial cheaters to justify themselves. These accusations were also made to encourage supporters to vote, reinforcing the elections as a mechanism through which the party needs to be defended because it is in danger.

“Political stability cannot be built indefinitely on undiluted clientelism, partisan collusion, and modest civil alternatives to status quo politics” reads the policy brief.