by Al Jazeera Rima Majed Rima Majed is a researcher and a PhD Candidate in Political Sociology at the University of Oxford - This article represents opinion of the author
Beirut, Lebanon - Lebanese parliamentary
elections are expected to take place in May 2017. The last elections
were held eight years ago, in 2009. Although the parliament term in Lebanon
is four years, elections have been postponed twice since 2013 under
the pretext of deadlock over electoral law, fear of instability and
security unrest. In November 2014, in an unconstitutional move, the Lebanese
parliament renewed its mandate for a second time, granting itself an
additional 31 months, ending in June 2017.
The country had already entered a political deadlock in May
2014, when the presidential seat became unoccupied after the end of
former President Michel Suleiman's term. This situation continued for
two years and half until the election of President Michel Aoun in October 2016. This recent election of a president of the republic gave
hope that institutional life was gradually coming back to Lebanese
politics. However, despite the high hopes, most indicators today suggest
that the parliamentary elections will be postponed again, given that
the main leaders of the country have not yet been able to agree on an
electoral law that satisfies everyone's wishes. However, regardless of the date the elections will take
place or the law that will be adopted; the majority of Lebanese voters
will probably chose the same traditional sectarian leaders and their
proposed candidates once again.This will happen at a time when corruption
has reached unprecedented levels, leaders have proved - yet again -
their unwillingness to solve any of the most basic and pressing problems
such as electricity supply, housing, water or unemployment.
The re-election of the same leaders will happen while the
majority of the Lebanese are unable to find a job in the country, have
no access to good public education or hospitalisation and are struggling
to make ends meet. This is a time when neoliberal policies have become
clearly entrenched; privatisation is discussed as the only solution for the electricity crisis,
bank loans are being promoted as the answer to the housing crisis and
wealth is more and more concentrated in the hands of a few. In fact, the
upcoming elections will be the first parliamentary elections after the rubbish crisis of 2015 when the #You_Stink movement
managed to mobilise tens of thousands of angry Lebanese on to the
streets, who accused the political elites of drowning the country in
rubbish and corruption. Despite all these conditions, the majority of the people will vote again for these same politicians.
At first sight, this seems to be a puzzle. Why would voters
once again choose representatives who have performed so badly? For many
liberal commentators, the problem is understood at the individual level.
They suggest that Lebanon's predicament lies in its "bad" leaders and,
therefore, a solution to the country's problems would be to bring new
'blood' to the positions of power.
They criticise the "short-sighted" voters who "blindly
follow their sectarian leaders and consider that "new" and "independent"
alternatives should be available for the "enlightened citizens" who do
not identify with this corrupt sectarian system and who want change.
Therefore, it is expected that a number of "independent"
candidates will be standing in the upcoming elections, presenting
themselves as "qualified", "honest" and "non-sectarian" alternatives.
However, regardless of the qualifications and qualities of these
candidates, the majority of the voters will still prefer the traditional
This is not because voters are naive, blind followers or are
unaware of the corruption of their leaders. This is rather because
voters are very aware of the structure of the Lebanese system. They see
that voting for a few independent candidates is unlikely to solve any
problem within the current structure of the Lebanese system. Let us
revisit this system to clarify what I mean.
The end of the civil war was declared in 1989 with the
signing of the Taif Agreement. This came to reinforce Lebanon's
consociational formula of the post-independence National Pact and to
adjust the sectarian balance of power.
The Taif Agreement
was based on a reading of the civil war as a sectarian confrontation.
It presumed that the Lebanese society is "deeply divided" along
sectarian lines, and thus needed solutions that addressed these
divisions to prevent the resumption of conflict. This led to a
re-adoption of consociational prescriptions that allocate seats
according to sects.
The essence of consociationalism, as explained by its famous
theorist Arend Lijphart, is that negotiation and decision-making should
only happen at the level of leaders who are the representatives of
their sectarian communities. Lijphart argues that in "deeply-divided"
societies, such as Lebanon, contact between groups in society is a bad
idea and conflict can only be contained at the elite level.
Therefore the Lebanese system is based on the idea that
sectarian leaders represent communities, they defend their interests and
they regulate their conflicts. Although this assumption of communal conflict and sectarian
divides has been repeatedly criticised and debunked, adopting such a
sectarian power-sharing system reinforced the idea that power does not
lie within the state but is rather in the hands of communal leaders
whose job is to negotiate it within state institutions.
Within such a political system, networks of sectarian
patronage flourished while state institutions weakened to the point that
most of their functions were being fulfilled through non-state
channels. Sectarian leaders became not only the sole representatives of
their communities but also the main providers of services, jobs and
The development of such alternative modes of non-state
welfare created allegiance to the leaders who, while pursuing their
personal interests, also provide for their loyal followers.
These provisions need not be strictly material, but are also
increasingly linked to security and protection, as noted by Lebanese
sociologist Fawwaz Traboulsi who argues that in the aftermath of the
civil war, Lebanon has moved from a system of clientelism to a
mafiocracy, where monopoly over violence is not in the hands of the
Therefore, the stronger the leader is, the more protection and benefits his constituency expect to have.
Thus, in a time when "corrup"', but strong, traditional
leaders are providing security, services and material incentives to
their constituencies, can independent candidates really compete with
them? How would candidates running for elections as independents,
without a political party or organisation, be able to compete with
well-established sectarian parties and leaders who have a long history
of power and clientelistic networks?
Why would voters give up on their powerful sectarian leaders
and go for independent individuals who are definitely weaker within the
existing Lebanese system?
This, of course, does not say that voters are essentially
sectarian and thus prefer sectarian leaders. This is rather to suggest
that, in the absence of a state that provides the basic economic and
security rights to its citizens, it is illogical for voters to chose
candidates who are unable to fulfil these roles.
For this reason, "independent" candidates can only make it
if they adopt the logic and the functioning of the Lebanese system as it
is, and thus build alliances, direct or indirect, with the traditional
However, it then becomes illogical to consider that such
alliances can be a step towards reforms since the very logic of the
Lebanese formula strives on the weakness of the state and the
concentration of power outside of it. Therefore, the argument that
proposes that the arrival of "good" people to the parliament can be a
first step to changing the system from within seems utopic.
If power is not within the state, change cannot come from
inside the state. And if independent candidates are unorganised
individuals who do not belong to broader political groups, voters are
rational to consider that they do not provide serious alternatives.
Therefore, it is not a matter of "evil" leaders and "good"
alternatives. The problem in Lebanon is deeply rooted in its very
structure. The assumptions on which the system is based have entrenched
vertical sectarian division and flourished by masking horizontal class
divisions. Leaders in Lebanon can only be leaders by making sure that
the state remains weak and welfare and security remain distributed
through non-state channels.
Any attempt at organising from below and proposing a serious
alternative will quickly be marginalised or crushed. We have recently
seen some variations of this with both the popular protests of 2015 and
the Beirut Madinati municipal campaign in 2016, when leaders of all
sectarian groups united in order to safeguard their beloved Lebanese
Source: Al Jazeera News