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Why analysing Lebanese voter behaviour may be the key to having more women running for office

Written by Doreen Khoury

Today Lebanese women are more politically mobilised than they have ever been. 113 female candidates braved a hostile patriarchal political system, a privatised partisan media and skeptical voters to run for office on 6 May 2018. It was a singular achievement in a country which ranks near bottom (no. 137 out of 144) in the global gender gap index1 - in 2009 only 12 women ran for seats in the previous election.

Yet having nearly 100 more female candidates running for office in 2018 was not enough for them to win. Female representation rose from four to an equally paltry six seats out of a total of 128 parliamentary seats. The initial euphoria in the Lebanese women’s movement dissipated into quests for self-reflection. For example, prominent women’s rights activist and lawyer, Manar Zaiter in a Facebook post on 9 May 2018, urged all activists and organisations working on women’s political participation to rethink their strategies and messages and engage in constructive self-criticism in light of the weak election result for women.

What is stopping women from breaking through? There is ample analysis on the deep-seated structural obstacles that women face in trying to build political careers2 published in April 2018 by Lebanon Support and Hivos). We know that political parties are inhospitable to women given their patriarchal nature. We know that the political system is corrupt and clientelist, dominated by a ruling class that jealously guards its power and privilege. We also know that the weight of male-dominated social traditions and customs stifle women from an early age, making it much harder for them to aspire to political careers. The familial, communal and financial support is just not there for them.

Grappling with these challenges remains a daunting task for activists. Over the last decade, numerous campaigns, projects and programmes targeting political parties and government, both local and national, have attempted to close the gender gap in political representation and have more women in political office. Much grassroots work has been done to change public opinion on women in leadership positions. All, bluntly speaking, to little avail. While these efforts may have contributed to a significant rise in female candidates, they did not have an effect where it actually matters: convincing voters to change their ingrained habits and vote for women.

What motivates Lebanese voters? What do they expect from candidates before the elections? What does voting mean for them as citizens? Over the course of the Women Empowered for Leadership (WE4L) Programme,3 we have observed that learning the technicalities of how to run for office is not the same as convincing voters to overcome their hesitation towards voting for, not just women, but new political actors in general - anyone outside the ‘system’. A forthcoming study to be published by WE4L partner Lebanon Support based on extensive nation-wide focus groups conducted immediately before and after the May 2018 elections attempts to answer these questions and provide concrete knowledge on voter behaviour to both female candidates and all actors seeking to have more women in office. The study reveals the seemingly contradictory motivations of Lebanese voters with which new political actors and women may have to contend in future elections.

While the study will provide more details on voter behaviour and motivations, I will present here a summary of some of the key findings.

Focus group participants displayed a clear lack of faith that political life in Lebanon could change, thus casting their votes with little conviction. Reflecting a general negative mood, there was an overall perception that voter turnout (49.7%) was especially low in 2018, even though it was more or less consistent with turnout in previous elections (46.7% in 2005 and 53.98% in 2009).4 People who did vote, sympathised with those who did not, justifying the latter’s decision as a logical one, given the belief that their votes will not have any positive impact on their lives.

Digging a bit deeper revealed the contradictory impulses in Lebanese voters. Focus group participants displayed conflict between their aspirations versus their day to day realities. While new political groups were identified as a requisite for political change, there was real reluctance to vote for new political actors such as the Kollouna Watani coalition. Participants expressed resentment towards mainstream actors, yet said they would vote for the same mainstream actors, or alternative traditional forces. Ultimately, voters did not believe new political actors would win, so said they voted ‘strategically’ for existing parties so as not to ‘waste’ their votes.

This contradiction required further unpacking. While many voters taking part in the focus groups would prefer a candidate with high principles such as integrity and transparency, the actual candidate they voted for was the ‘transactional’ choice; one that provided services and deliverables to the voter’s immediate family. This was considered by some as more of a deciding factor than partisanship towards political parties or leaders. While the reliance on political parties and traditional leaders for services (examples provided in focus groups included employment opportunities for family members, medical coverage and payment of school fees) was distasteful to many, the overwhelming perception among voters is that obtaining these services was only possible through political patronage.

When it comes to voting for women specifically, two quick observations can be made based on the study.

First, is the depiction of elections in masculine terms. For some the elections were a “battle of existence” - one which presumably women are too feeble to fight. For others, politics in Lebanon were likened to a battle between communities over rights and privileges, hence men were perceived to be more capable than women when it comes to ‘standing up’ for these rights.

Second, is how people cast their preferential votes. In general, voters chose three categories of candidates: the political or sectarian leader of the list; the candidate they are instructed to vote for by the party to ensure enough votes in lists made up of coalitions of various parties; and finally a candidate from the same sect. In these three instances, candidates were always males.

No doubt these findings are disheartening for all activistس and groups advocating to have more women in power. Do we continue to lobby reluctant politicians to give up their power and privileges if there have been no concrete results other than lip-service to women’s representation? Or do we stop bothering with the government and political class, and focus on changing skeptical voter behaviour towards women and new political actors as the key to unseating these politicians?

It is clear that voter behaviour is perpetuating a political system that is detrimental to the political success of women and new political actors. I do not pretend by any means to have concrete answers but I think future strategies should focus on two complementary tracks addressing voter behaviour: one from the top and another from the bottom.

From the top: Revive the women’s quota campaign

Women need to be given a chance to prove themselves to voters. If political parties refuse to nominate women, if media organisations fail to give them fair coverage to be able to make their case to voters and if election laws fail to fairly regulate campaign finance, then it is the duty of the government to pass the quota to give women the opportunity to reach public office and perhaps mollify voters’ skepticism. In the short to medium term, I do not see any other policy or reform or campaign that will get more women into parliament. The demand for a women’s quota is over two decades old, since Lebanon acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).5 Yes, it is associated with the older generation women’s movement and has been decidedly elitist in the past, but we have to ask ourselves: if voters don’t vote for women and the political class doesn’t want them to run or win, what other option do we have?

From the bottom: Convince Lebanese to vote per their aspirations

Before we dismiss this strategy as starry-eyed and fanciful, I think it merits some consideration. If we submit to the observation that political life in Lebanon cannot change for the better and that Lebanese citizens will never vote for anyone outside the ‘system’, we are condemning ourselves to a perpetual cycle of tentative hope and severe disappointment at every election. Based on the findings mentioned above, the long-term strategy for women candidates and new political actors could be to directly address the contradictory impulses of Lebanese voters and finding a way to appeal to both their aspirations and hopes, and acknowledge their immediate needs at the same time. This is not impossible but, first, it requires candidates to prioritise what their constituents want rather than what they want, and second, it needs long-term investment in finding out precisely what their constituents want. The forthcoming report by Lebanon Support can be used as an inspiration or starting point for this approach.

Both approaches entail overhauling or at least reconsidering our current approaches to having more women in power. A revived quota campaign has to move outside its current elitist setting and involve, or, even better, be led by a newer generation of activists outside the traditional women’s organisations. Aspiring women candidates (and everyone supporting them) have to adopt a long-term approach and engage directly and consistently with their constituents to change voting behaviour in their favour. Messages have to be tailored to resonate with constituents, and, candidates need to find ways to work with communities to help them meet their social and economic needs. The findings summarised above show an electorate fully aware that politics is broken in Lebanon. Citizens might be willing to give non-mainstream actors and female candidates chance during the period between elections, a time when they are inevitably disappointed with the limited progress made by the government of the day. This will require the long-term goal of reframing of how politics is done in Lebanon and a redefinition that speaks to the aspirations of voters - a difficult, improbable but given the dead-end we have reached, a crucial task.

Doreen Khoury cares passionately about knowledge and advocacy as tools for long-term social and political change and gender equality and justice in the Middle East and beyond. She has published extensively on diverse topics such as the plight of Syrian refugees, Syrian civil society, political transformations in the MENA region, Lebanese politics and women’s rights. She has also been active in supporting LGBT rights and fighting censorship. She has previously worked at the Heinrich Boell Foundation, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, and the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies.

1 Sanam Vakil, ‘Iran and the GCC hedging, pragmatism and opportunism’, Chatham House

2 Catherine Batruni and Marcus Hallinan, ‘Politics, Progress, and Parliament in 2018: Can Lebanese Women Make Headway?’, Lebanon Support

3 Hivos programme funded by the Dutch Foreign Ministry

4 Voter Turnout according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

5 United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women,