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Laura Paler, Leslie Marshall, and Sami Atallah , respectively, Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Pittsburgh, Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh, and LCPS executive director

May 2018
Why Are People Not Willing to Publicly Support Political Reform?

Throughout the tenure of Lebanon’s last parliament, the political elite largely failed to address a series of socio-economic challenges facing the country. In addition to not fostering job creation or actively managing the Syrian refugee crisis, politicians also failed to address more fundamental issues such as producing and transmitting an adequate amount of electricity, collecting and disposing of waste, ensuring adequate water supply to the country’s residents, maintaining road networks, and providing solid internet connections for the population. Given the opportunity, it seems fair to presume that people would vote them out of office but this did not occur during the most recent parliamentary elections. This begs the question, what is holding people back from publicly supporting political reform?

Our recent research, based on an experimental survey of 2,496 people, shows that while many people do support political reform, they are afraid of publicly calling for it out of concern of being socially sanctioned.  In other words, when people were asked to sign a petition that calls for abolishing confessional politics, dropping the sectarian division of power, exercising accountability, reducing the role of sectarian political parties, and ensuring that revenues are spent based on need and priorities—all of which would contribute to sound delivery of public goods and services to people—70% accepted to do so as long as they remain anonymous. When we randomly asked another group of citizens to sign the same petition on the condition that their names will be made public, only 50% agreed to do so.

The 20 percentage drop is very revealing. Based on our analysis, it is largely due to fear of social sanctioning. In other words, people are afraid to publicly voice their support for political change even though they privately endorse it. They seem to be afraid of their confessional leaders, who could punish them for their political convictions by depriving them of benefits accessible through clientelistic networks. However, their fear is not only confined to politicians’ actions; it is much more embedded in their social and family milieu. That is, people were wary of publicly supporting reform out of fear of being sanctioned by their own confessional community as well as family and friends.

Looking at how Lebanese of different income groups responded, low income groups—like their wealthier counterparts—equally support reforming the political system in private, but are more worried about expressing their views in public out of fear of being sanctioned. More specifically, while 69% of low income groups signed the private petition, only 44% signed the public petition.

When we examined how people from different confessions responded to the signing of the petition, two interesting findings emerge. First, while more than 80% of Sunnis and Shias supported the signing of the private petition, only 56% of Christians chose to do so. In other words, Christians seem to less likely support the private petition, which could be attributed to the fact that they believe they stand to lose the most from such reform, as they make up roughly one-third of the population but currently hold half the seats in parliament and senior public sector positions. Second, when we compare how citizens from the same confessional group responded to the public petition, we notice that Sunnis’ support for political reform drops significantly by 29 percentage points compared to only 19 and 18 percentage points for Christians and Shias, respectively. In other words, they seem to be most afraid of publicly supporting reform because Sunnis perceive their community as facing a serious threat due to a range of factors including the war in Syria, a collapse in support from Saudi Arabia, and a weakening sectarian party.

In brief, many Lebanese support political reform and a change in the status quo as pertains to confessional allotments of political positions as well as holding the country’s leaders to account, however they are largely held back by fear. While there is a heavy focus by independent political groups on fixing the country’s socio-economic ills, voters appear content to maintain the status quo out of fear of being punished. Hence, there is a strong need to address these fears by protecting and ensuring people’s rights to political freedom. To achieve this, in the short term, those who are less subject to social sanctioning must lead change that can pave the way for creating an environment where people publicly express their political preferences without being punished. 

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