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Melani Cammett, Dominika Kruszewska and Sami Atallah, respectively Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs in the Department of Government at Harvard University and LCPS research fellow, doctoral student in the Government Department at Harvard University, and LCPS executive director


May 2018
What Lebanon’s Elections Can Teach us About the Importance of Religion in Elections

Lebanon will hold national elections on Sunday for the first time in almost ten years. Findings from a recent study on what drives political support in Lebanon shed light on what we might expect from the elections. The data show that shared religious identity between candidates and citizens is the most important factor – even beyond vote-buying and other clientelist outreach by parties and politicians. Respondents were about 10% more likely to select a co-ethnic candidate and only about 4% more likely to select candidates who promise to deliver high-value clientelist goods such as jobs or pledge to address high salience issues such as unemployment. Challengers to the status quo sectarian parties might need to consider how to adjust their appeals to recognize that communal identity – and not just issues – resonate with many citizens.
 
 
On 6 May 2018, Lebanese citizens will vote in national elections for the first time since 2009. These are the first elections since the June 2017 passage of a new electoral law, and the first since the 2016 Beirut municipal elections, in which a programmatic challenger to the traditional, patronage-based sectarian parties—Beirut Madinati—was formed and won almost 40% of votes. Their success posed a challenge to the traditional, patronage-based sectarian parties that have long held an iron grip on Lebanese politics.
 
Will this challenge actually change the voting behavior of Lebanese citizens?  Will they succumb to traditional vote buying strategies often exercised by political parties to win electoral support? Will they cast their votes for a new political group that is running on a programmatic platform? Or will people give their preferential vote in the newly adopted proportional representation system to those from their own confessional group?
 
To test the influence of these distinct factors on citizen political behavior, we used a conjoint survey experiment in which 2,400 respondents were asked to choose between two hypothetical candidates whose profiles varied randomly on a range of attributes such as clientelistic promises of low or high value goods, appeal of programmatic platforms related to waste management and unemployment, and confession of the candidate, among others. 
 
Three key findings emerge.
 
Clientelism is not just about short-term exchanges: Academic literature on politics in developing countries—including those with politicized ethnoreligious social cleavages, as in Lebanon—highlight the role of vote-buying during elections. However, our study shows that different forms of goods have different effects on electoral behavior. While low-value benefits such as cash and food baskets do not move voters, people are, on average, more likely to choose a candidate who provides medical treatment and employment opportunities to family members—both considered to be high value goods—by 2% and 4%, respectively.  This suggests that disbursing clientelist goods, which require continuous relationships between patrons and clients, is more effective than one-shot transactions.
 
Issues are important. The literature on political behavior in the Middle East and in other developing regions indicates that programmatic considerations do not drive voter behavior. Where parties are weak and legislatures have little influence on policy-making, policy platforms are less effective.  Our study shows otherwise. Actually, programmatic appeals matter, but not in the way we expected. Rather than a programmatic platform, what matters is the issue itself: Having a detailed plan does not increase support for a candidate but respondents are 4% more likely to vote for candidates who raise the issue of unemployment.
 
Ethnicity and religion matter, and it’s not just a cover for clientelism.   Respondents are about 10% more likely to select a co-ethnic, or a candidate from the same religious community, which is the strongest predictor of support for candidates.   If religion trumps clientelist distribution and policy concerns about pressing policy issues, such as garbage collection and unemployment, what does it mean to citizens? Why do they seem to care more about a politician’s religious identity than the ability to deliver clientelist handouts or policies that they favor?
 
Our survey allowed us to probe whether a candidate’s religion serves as a cue for potential access to clientelist benefits, a guarantee to focus on protecting the community from outside threats, an indicator of shared policy preferences among members of the same community, or a preference for people from the same community—that is, what social psychologists refer to as “in-group love.”
 
Although we find some evidence that clientelist benefits offered by a co-ethnic have more appeal, none of the other potential explanations are supported by the data, with the exception of in-group love. The apparent favoritism for co-ethnic candidates that respondents expressed may then reflect a human tendency to distinguish between in- versus out-groups, which in turn fulfills a need for belonging and facilitates social cooperation. This penchant for communal group attachment may be all the more compelling in the context of weak state institutions, which fail to induce an attachment to a broader national political community.
 
Lebanon’s national elections are a good case study from which we can derive a better understanding of what drives peoples’ electoral behavior in ethnically diverse patronage democracies. The results of the upcoming national elections on Sunday may show what some already suspect, specifically, that in terms of garnering votes, independent groups often focus quite heavily on programmatic platforms and, to their own detriment, ignore communal affinity. Such a conclusion would have major implications for any independent and policy-centered campaign both in Lebanon and the region.
 
 







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