The parties that make up the Lebanese political system are the most Western in the Arab world. Though Lebanon still suffers under an antiquated legal system inherited from the Ottoman Empire and French Mandate period, prior to World War II, the Cedar Republic enjoys a vibrant and competitive party system that has only become freer after the end of Israeli and Syrian occupation in the years 2000 and 2005 respectively.

Following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and the ensuing Cedar Revolution, in the spring of 2005, Lebanon was gradually divided into two competing partisan camps. The majority in parliament was  controled of the pro-Western 14th of March coalition under the leadership of the predominantly Sunni Future Movement. The oppositional 8th of March coalition has was led by Hezbollah. The ideological differences between the two blocs are largely based on foreign policy consideration. Domestic issues are regularly paid lip service, but can hardly be seen as divisive. Whereas the 14th of March claims to support free competitive markets, rule of law, structural reform, and individual freedoms, the 8th of March alliance champions the ideals of anti-corruption, regional anti-imperialist solidarity, and a sceptical approach to the intentions of the United States and the European Union.

The Summer War of 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah led to a hardening of the two opposing partisan camps. The Iranian backed Party of God, with the support of the Shi’ia Amal Movement and the predominantly Maronite Free Patriotic Movement, have prevented any significant legislation from being passed for over the last three years. For its part, the Future Movement, with its Druze (Progressive Socialist Party) and Maronite (Lebanese Forces) allies, have insisted on a stance which favors the socio-economic status quo, enjoying the open support of France, the United States and Saudi Arabia.

In following, the legal, societal, and organizational foundation of the Lebanese party system will be described in some detail, in order to provide the reader with a glimpse into the workings of the Arab world’s only functioning democracy.

The Legal Foundation
Like any country with a highly colorful and divided political history, Lebanon’s constitutional foundations are muddied and somewhat contradictory. Neither the original constitution of 1926, nor the National Pact (1943) and post-Civil War Taif Agreement (1989) foresee the existence of political parties. Political party organisations have developed by default, based on the need to perpetuate and codify the electoral list system, which is the actual legal foundation of the multiparty regime in Lebanon. Like all other non-profit associations, political parties are governed by the Ottoman Law of Association of 1909. Art.13 of the constitution guarantees freedom of association and thus indirectly the right to organize political parties.

There is also no law specifically regulating political parties in Lebanon, although experts and civil society activists have been demanding a party law for some time. The nature of the Lebanese electoral system had traditionally made political parties, as they are commonly perceived in a Western sense, irrelevant. The clientelistic and confessional character of Lebanese society had led most political leaders to rely more on their extended family allegiances, respective religious denominations (including the confessional family status courts), regional loyalty networks, and the flagrant use of illegal practices such as vote buying and the rigging of polling stations, rather then on partisan political structures, ideologically based party programs, and detailed election platforms. This began to change as of the election of 2005, following Syrian withdrawal from the country.

As mentioned above, political leaders and movements are permitted to register with the Ministry of the Interior as non-profit associations under the 1909 Ottoman Law of Association. As in the case of all associations, they enjoy the right to autonomously manage and administer their finances, open bank accounts, and accept funding and gifts. Parties are obliged to keep three sets of files; first on their membership, second on the decisions of their executive committee or board and the activities of their association, and third on their finances and expenditures, which should be made available to the authorities whenever so requested. An additional updated file shall be kept, which includes any change to the bylaws or the party organization. Political parties, like all associations, must submit annual copies of these files to the Ministry of Interior.

In the period between the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in early 2005 and the recent parliamentary elections of June 2009, the number of relevant political parties has remained largely unchanged. Considering that political parties in a Western sense did not exist in Lebanon until recently, the introduction of modern, broad-based party structures in the period following the end of Syrian occupation, in the wake of the Cedar Revolution, represents a significant stride in the direction of Western style modernization. Despite its anti-Western ideological bent, Hezbollah has demonstrated a unique ability to develop a wide range of modern party structures analogous to the social welfare/political mobilization strategies employed by populist mass parties in Western Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

Listed here according to the size of their parliamentary factions after the 2009 elections, the following political parties can be considered relevant:

Future Movement Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (FM), 30 seatsFree Patriotic Movement Al-Tayyar al-Watani al-Hurr (FPM), 18 seats
Amal Movement Harakat Amal, 13 seats
Party of God Hezbollah, 12 seats
Progressive Socialist Party al Hizb al-Taqadummi al-Ishtiraki (PSP) 12 seats
Lebanese Forces al-Quwwat al-Lubnaniya (LF), 8
Phalange Party Hizb al-Kataeb, 5 seats
Armenian Revolutionary Federation Tashnak; 2 seats
Syrian National Social Party al-Hizb al-Souri al-Qawmi al-Ijtima’I (SNSP), 2 seats

Other, smaller parties, movements and electoral lists are largely dependent on either the 14th of March coalition or the 8th of March opposition in order to get their candidates elected. This does necessarily assume a relationship of dependency. As in the case of the Greek Orthodox leader Michel Murr in the Metn region north of Beirut, both the 14th and 8th of March coalitions have competed for his confessional clout in order to secure the success of their respective lists during recent elections. On the other hand, although the Marada party had no seats in parliament between 2005 and 2009, its status as the “personal party” of the powerful northern Maronite Franjieh clan, it’s alliance both with the FPM and Hezbollah’s 8th of March coalition, the gerrymandering of electoral districts contained in the Doha election law, as well as the personal friendship between its current leader, former Minister of the Interior Suleiman Franjieh, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad guaranteed that Marada’s political fall from grace was only temporary.

Origins of parties
Many of the significant political parties in Lebanon were founded as militias during the Lebanese civil war, including the Lebanese Forces, Amal, Hezbollah, and Marada. Others, such as the Kataeb, the Syrian National Social Party, and the Progressive Socialist Party, were clearly ideological from the outset and were strongly influenced by the European left or extreme right  in the mid 20th century. Both the Future Movement and Free Patriotic Movement are products of a new generation of post-civil war, neo-liberal reform movements and bear the stamp of their respective founders, Rafik Hariri and General Michel Auon. The Armenian Tashnak Party, along with two smaller progressive Armenian parties, are products of liberal and social democratic nationalism in the second half of the 19th century and were imported to Lebanon following the Armenian genocide.

All Lebanese political parties are primarily the result of patronage relationships and are built on either a nationalist or ethno-religious basis. With the exception of Hezbollah, Lebanese parties have basically been vehicles for groups of individual candidates to pursue their ends. In the case of Hezbollah, the party has long been an important mechanism for the political integration of voters. Starting with the elections of 2005, the Lebanese political parties have been gradually reinventing themselves and taking on many of the attributes of modern political organization along the lines of Western role models.

Because of the nature of the Lebanese electoral system, until the current election, political parties have played only a limited role in voter mobilization. Voters’ ties are much closer to their respective members of parliament, who interact with them through a complex network of family clan, confessional, regional, and personal relationships. It remains to be seen if the modernization process, which has accompanied the 2009 election campaign, will lead to more stable relationships between voters and parties in the period following the elections.

Lebanese parties depend on the sectarian, family loyalty, and clientelistic structures that help their members get elected. The regional, women’s, youth, student, and professional organizations typical of most Lebanese parties have two functions; first to help disseminate resources and connections to government officials on all levels (termed wasta in Lebanese dialect) and second to organize voters during elections to university student unions and the so-called syndicates, i.e. the associations of architects, lawyers, and other professionals. Lebanese parties are well organized in those regions in which their confessional base is located. Thus Amal and Hezbollah have well developed party structures in the southern suburbs of Beirut; Future’s party organization concentrates on West Beirut, whereas the Christian parties compete for support in the eastern part of the capital and the suburbs to the East and North. The same holds true for the rest of the country, where the dominant Druze, Sunni, Shi’ia, Eastern Orthodox, and Armenian parties use their “wasta” and welfare networks to secure the support of important families and religious leaders. The exception to this rule is the Maronite community, which is currently split between the LF and Kataeb, on the one hand, and the FPM and Marada, on the other.

One significant trend, which has become even more important with the decision to phase in absentee or “out of country voting” (OCV) between 2009 and 2013, is the role of the partisan diaspora organizations. All relevant parties maintain offices in those parts of the world in which their confessional and family clan-based constituencies are located, including many countries in Western Europe, North and South America, West Africa, the Arab Gulf states and Australia. The practice of flying potential voters to Lebanon was already practiced on a large scale in 2005, and appears to have increased in 2009. The Doha Election Law foresee OCV, which should be finally possible during the next election in 2013. This will both enhance the role of the diaspora populations and potentially introduce more stable voter-party relationships because of the difficult logistical nature of organizing absentee voter campaigns around the world. Currently, migration experts estimate that approximately 20 to 25 per cent of all eligible voters live outside of Lebanon on a semi-permanent or permanent basis.

Societal entrenchment
Because of the close ties most political party elites maintain to religiously based charitable organizations, as well as to leaders within their respective denominations – including the family status courts – ties to civil society are inherent in the work of political parties. Many powerful Lebanese families not only play a major role in electoral politics, but also fund or even maintain NGOs, often bearing their name. The leading Lebanese political families also play an important role in the fields of the media, higher education, and sponsored research. Ties between foreign national and international NGOs, Lebanese civil society, and the relevant Lebanese political parties are less transparent. Along with the important role that Middle Eastern, e.g. Arab Gulf and Iranian, donors play in this respect, one should also factor in the funds, training, and global networking potential offered by civil society actors from the European Union, North America, and other Western sources.

All Lebanese parties are strongly hierarchical and based on patronage style distribution of resources and influence peddling (wasta). Because of the electoral system (multi-member districts, plurality-based, confessionally segmented) the selection of candidates is automatically geared to the needs of the respective religious denominations, extended family loyalty structures, and regional power elites. Ideological considerations, if at all relevant, rarely play a role in candidate selection or the success of party lists during elections.

In summary, the political system in Lebanon suffers from a weak legal framework and a political culture based on favouritism, clientalism, corruption, and the occasional use of coercive violence. This notwithstanding, the Cedar Republic has a long tradition of relatively competitive parliamentary elections, with shifting coalitions based on a cooperative relationship between predominately sectarian Christian and Muslim parties. Despite its Islamist and militant past, Hezbollah has proven to be as much a game player in this complex and contradictory arena as any of the other semi-democratic Lebanese parties.

Dr Eugene Sensenig-Dabbous, Associate Professor for Political Science at Notre Dame University, Lebanon

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