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Confessionalism and Clientelism in Lebanon: Two-Sides of the Same Coin

Middle East Analyst

Since its independence in 1943, Lebanon has operated on a confessional system of governance - a subsection of consociationalism wherein power-sharing is distributed along religious lines. Nonetheless, in spite of its ostensibly representative electoral system, Lebanon is far from a free-consolidated democracy - ranking as ‘partly free’ in Freedom Houses’ 2022 report. Lebanon is also riddled with corruption, maintaining a Corruption Perceptions Index score (CPI) of 24 out of 100 as of 2021, with 0 being highly corrupt. Therefore, the mix of confessional politics and high corruption has led to political patronage becoming a prominent issue in Lebanon, with sectarian-political elites competing for state resources, coercing voters, and continually undermining political accountability. Persistent elite dominance of politics, combined with their consolidation of state resources, has thus created a negative cycle in which the confessional model is used to enable corruption and subsequent clientelism to take over the Lebanese polity, a cycle which in turn reinforces confessional allegiances to the detriment of the state and its citizens.

In October 1989, during the final stages of the civil war which had gripped Lebanon since 1975, the Taif Agreement was signed, ushering in a renewed confessional system aimed at addressing the misrepresentation under the former ‘National Pact’ formed after Lebanese independence in 1943, wherein executive and legislative positions - along with public sector allocation, were allocated along confessional lines through a ratio of 6:5, Christians to Muslims respectively, based on an outdated census from 1932. Under the renewed Taif agreement, representation in government positions were updated to 5:5 between Christians and Muslims, however, the allocation of the executive positions of President, Prime Minister and Speaker remained as they were under the National Pact, with the position of President reserved for Maronite Christians, Prime Minister for Sunni Muslims, and Speaker of Parliament for Shia Muslims - although some concessions were made to strengthen the

position of the Speaker in government. The agreement also introduced a ‘centripetal’ approach in an effort to consolidate the Lebanese populous through cross-sectarianism, which involved assembling the ballot of each of Lebanon’s 15 voting districts so as to reflect the confessional-demographics within each district. Here, it’s evident that the agreement transcends the more traditional consociationalism use of ethnically homogenous ‘grand coalitions’ and rather embraced a new blend of confessional political representation through cross-sectarian voting.

Nevertheless, despite its efforts to create an effective, cross-sectarian electoral system, Taif failed in many regards. Most crucially, Taif provided blanket amnesty through the ‘General Amnesty Law 84/91- which enabled former war-lords to emerge as sectarian-elites and rebrand as political figures. Accountability was, therefore, undermined in Lebanon’s post-war transition, and war crimes as well as crimes against humanity were overlooked.

Consequently, no criminal investigations or precautions were initiated for the approximately 17,000 individuals that ‘disappeared’ during the war. In this regard, the lack of accountability which enabled the sectarian-elite to re-enter the post-war political arena sowed the seeds for corruption and inequality within the system of governance. Sectarian-elites simply reinstated their power in the post-civil war confessional system, in spite of the concessions made in the Taif agreement. But while these elites undoubtably were a large reason the vision of Lebanon presented in the Taif agreement was undermined other factors, such as the continued Syrian presence in Lebanon until 2005, also played their role.

These sectarian-elites were far more concerned with retaining their share of power in the government than acting in the interests of the country resulting in little interest or active commitment in decreasing elite grasp over government institutions and creating an effective, representative, governance system. This was evidenced by disputes over cross-sectarian voting, which theoretically should have allowed voting to move past direct quota distribution. However, continuous elite disagreement over the implementation of this policy led to very little change - which meant that it had little impact on voting patterns. Thus, by 1998 - ten years after implementation, Taif was given only a 59.26 implementation score by the Peace Accords Matrix.

It has therefore become clear that Taif has simply allowed elites to maintain their grip over the Lebanese state, which in turn has left sectarian elites abusing their control over state-funds and competing for control over ministries for their own benefit. This is evident both by the extraction of resources from the state - either to further personal gain or to further clientele relations through the provision of resources and welfare among other ‘goods’ - and by the infiltration of legislative and judicial branches in a way that makes them susceptible to elite-control; the Lebanese government has been accused of failing to allow for an independent judiciary due to continued influence of the executive branch over judicial matters.

Furthermore the militant group Hezbollah has retained a prominent position in the politics of Lebanon since the Taif Agreement and has become the leading Shi’a party, exercising ‘government stacking’ as a strategy to gain control over government and ministries. This has been advanced through Hezbollah’s role in assisting Shi’a candidates to prepare for the ‘Civil Service Board examination’, where there has equally been reports of ‘pressure’ for the board to be more lenient towards Shi’a candidates. From 2008 - 2019, Hezbollah members and affiliates held a third of all ministerial positions - essentially granting Hezbollah a ‘veto’ in the Lebanese cabinet. Further, in 2011, Hezbollah’s former Minister of Agriculture - Hussein al-Hajj Hassan, was accused by the President of the ‘Farmers Syndicate’ of selectively distributing government benefits for the development of agricultural infrastructure, as certain areas that were agriculturally significant had not been receiving these benefits from the ministry because they were not supporters of Hezbollah. Lebanon’s widespread corruption and lack of accountability was perhaps best exhibited by the fact no one has been held accountable for the Beirut Port explosion on August 4th 2020, when 2,750 tons of poorly stored ammonium nitrate exploded killing at least 266 people.

Thus, the prevalence of state corruption has generated political patronage networks through weakening state institutions and cultivating dependency on patronage for resources and welfare. Religious sectarian groups are now key providers of welfare - ranging from operation of schools and social services to hospitals. Further, there is a link between the outgroup provision of welfare and electoral mobilisation as an exchange for support - particularly among the Sunni Future Movement party - which can be linked in a broadened attempt to exchange welfare provision for votes across sect groups.

Furthermore, confessional voting reinforces Lebanese citizens’ dependence on sectarian elites as there are repercussions for not voting along sectarian lines. This is due to vote monitoring through the assignment of ‘family codes’ to individual voters, the assignment of relatively small ballot boxes of approximately 250 - 300 people, and the direct oversight of party representatives – although, crucially, it cannot be known currently to what degree this directly impacts patronage relations. Thus, the utility of monitoring in patronage systems not only reinforces corruption, but prolongs the ‘iteration’ of the interaction between clients and their patrons, entrapping the Lebanese populus in a vicious-cycle which, although furthered by patronage, essentially links back to the exploitation of the confessional system and elite-governance.

Equally, this has created another practice in Lebanon: ‘vote-buying’. Through a survey on the 2009 elections, it was found that, in aggregate, half of the voters had sold their vote in the election. However, these results may reflect a number of factors that influence voters to sell their votes - for example if this corroborates socioeconomic status it may indicate voters taking advantage of patrons’ willingness to pay for some form of electoral support. This understanding informed the deep concern over the 2022 election about the fairness of the election, due to candidates exchanging votes for welfare provisions which - with the dire economic state of Lebanon - have only increased in demand.

To this extent, Lebanon presents an interesting case study wherein political patronage and the exploitation of state resources are part of a greater issue of elite-dominance and

corruption, which has crafted a perpetual cycle of conflict - through inequality, political misrepresentation, weakening of the central state, and a dependency on elite provision of resources. For this reason, confessionalism and clientelism have become self-reinforcing elements of the Lebanese polity.


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