Lebanon’s Political System Leads to Paralysis and Corruption

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Below is an article that appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of The Economist magazine's print edition under the headline "Chopping up the tree of state".

It is difficult to escape the grip of religion in Lebanon. The rules that govern marriage, property rights and inheritance are administered by religious courts. Well-to-do secular Lebanese can fly to Cyprus to marry in civil ceremonies. But once back home, if their relationship goes sour, Muslims still have to deal with religious judges, who rule on divorce, alimony and child custody.

Lebanese are increasingly fed up with this way of doing things. The number of believers has steadily declined since 2011. Today almost a quarter of people say they are not devout, according to Arab Barometer, a pollster. Nearly half say they are only somewhat religious. Trust in clerics and the clergy has never been so low.

This helps explain why more and more Lebanese want to overhaul the way the country is run. On winning independence in 1943, Lebanon’s leaders agreed to divvy up political power among the country’s religions. The system has been tweaked over the years, often in response to outbreaks of violence, but not fundamentally changed. The president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker a Shia Muslim. Seats in parliament and government jobs are split between Christians and Muslims.

Many blame the power-sharing system for government paralysis and pervasive corruption. Take the electricity system, which badly needs an upgrade. Supply falls far short of demand, leading to daily blackouts. But instead of doing anything, rival political parties blame each other for the problem—and then profit from it. Many Lebanese use expensive generators to light their homes. The businessmen running the units are often connected to sectarian leaders, who take a cut.

When politicians squabble it is often over how to share the spoils of power, not because they disagree on policy. Many were warlords during the sectarian-fuelled civil war of 1975-90. They tend to award contracts to friends, family and supporters. The public payroll has expanded as bigwigs jostle to give jobs to their co-religionists. Several government agencies, such as the postal service and transport authority, guzzle fat budgets but do little work. The waste associated with confessional governance costs Lebanon 9% of GDP each year, according to the World Bank.

But though many want to abolish the power-sharing system, few are prepared to act. Fear is one reason. In an experiment conducted by the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, 70% of people agreed to sign a petition calling for the abolition of the system. The figure dropped to 50% when people were told their names would be made public. Most Lebanese depend on a political party for financial support. Sectarian leaders provide jobs, cover hospital fees and pay for schooling. “We have Stockholm syndrome,” says Jawad Adra of Information International, a consultancy in Beirut. “Our leaders hold us hostage, but they are also our nurses.”

Some groups would inevitably lose power if the system were abolished. Christians, for example, get half the seats in parliament, based on their estimated share of the population. But the last national census was held in 1932. Many fear a new one would inflame sectarian tensions—for good reason. According to voter-registration lists obtained by The Economist in 2016, Christians make up only 37% of voters (see chart). That number is likely to shrink further, as Lebanese Muslims are younger and reproducing faster.

Among Muslims the system helps Sunnis, whose power has been eroded by the collapse of Saudi support and the tumbling fortunes of their main political party. There are more Shia than Sunni voters. But the influx of over 1m mostly Sunni Syrian refugees, who are now roughly a quarter of Lebanon’s population, complicates the situation. Absorbing them as citizens would upset the sectarian balance.

Optimists say a new electoral law that institutes proportional representation will make it easier for reformers to win seats when Lebanon holds parliamentary elections on May 6th. But candidates who rage against sectarianism have failed to convince many voters that they could provide the same benefits as vote-buying incumbents. And some voters question the wisdom of throwing out a system that, since the civil war, has kept the peace between religious groups. Abolishing it might lead to a sectarian power struggle, they say, sucking in other countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Lebanon’s neighbours serve as cautionary tales.

Gradual reform may be the best way forward. For example, parliamentary candidates could be allowed to run without having to name their religion or sect. Sectarian parties could still divide up seats under the current formula, but their share of parliament would shrink as the number of secular MPs rose. Such reforms, though, would require political elites to change the rules of a game from which they benefit. Until that happens, Lebanon will continue to limp along.

Source: The Economist