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Sami Atallah and Daniel Garrote Sanchez, respectively, LCPS executive director and senior researcher at LCPS

November 2018
Women’s Road to Parliament is Riddled with Obstacles

The May 2018 elections have been hailed as a step toward strengthening the role of women in Lebanese politics. After all, eighty-six women candidates ran for parliament compared to only twelve in 2009. It is striking that these women are not only younger on average than male candidates by eight years, but they are more educated: 90% have postgraduate degrees—master’s degrees or PhDs—compared to only 55% of male candidates. The majority of the women candidates—seventy of them—ran on non-partisan or civil society lists. Political parties have generally been reluctant to increase the presence of female candidates as only nine out of the eighty-six female candidates ran on the lists of one of the six main parties: Three for the Future Movement (Bahia Hariri, Roula Tabesh, and Dima Jamali), three for the Free Patriotic Movement (Ghada Assaf, Greeta Saab, and Corine Al-Ashkar), two for the Lebanese Forces (Sethrida Tawk and Jessica Azar), and one for Amal (Inaya Ezzeddine). There were no female candidates on the Hezbollah and Progressive Socialist Party lists. On the other hand, Kuluna Watani, a civil society group, had nineteen women candidates on their list, surpassing the number of female candidates put up by the six largest political parties altogether.
Women candidates competed in all districts. The highest number of women candidates were in Beirut 2 with nineteen candidates running on eight competing lists. This was followed by Metn with nine candidates running on five different lists, Tripoli-Minnieh-Dannieh with eight candidates running on five lists, Beirut 1 with seven candidates running on four lists, and Aley-Chouf with seven candidates running on three lists. The districts with lowest number of women candidates were in Zahrani-Tyre with two women running on two lists and West Beqaa—Rachaya with one female candidate. In Akkar (North 1 electoral district), a list comprising only women competed against the other male-dominated lists.
Despite several initiatives aimed at promoting the candidacies of women in the election, they fared poorly as they only managed to capture six seats, up from four in 2009. Holding on to 5% of parliamentary seats, female political participation is far worse than in other Arab states, where on average women occupy about 19% of seats. Lebanon is among the worst 10% of countries worldwide in terms of female political participation.
Women candidates garnered only 5% of the vote, yet not all women are equal. Those from political families or running on the list of established political parties managed to garner many more votes. For instance, Bahia Hariri won 20% of votes in South 1, Inaya Ezzeddine 13% in South 2, and Setherida Tawk and Roula Tabesh each received about 7% in North 3 and Beirut 2, respectively.  In other words, women who are politically connected—on the list of the established parties—perform well.
Putting aside the five female candidates whose family background or political connections were key to entering the parliament, we also examine whether female candidates tend to perform better in certain areas than in others. Building on the election data provided by the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities—which includes preferential votes for specific candidates as well as the confession and gender of registered voters in each polling station—along with LCPS’s database that includes several economic and political variables at the municipal level, the following is observed: First, female candidates perform significantly better in urban areas with lower poverty rates, which tend to be associated with higher level of income and more educated constituents. Second, they also obtain a higher share of votes in districts with a higher degree of political competitiveness (measured by the number of lists present in each electoral district and by the percentage of votes that the winning list obtained). For instance, women candidates received 8% of votes in Beirut 2 and 11% of the votes in Zahle—both districts which were competitive. Their performance in these districts is strikingly different from Baalbek-Hermel or Marjayoun-Nabatiyeh-Hasbaya-Bint Jbeil where they received less than 1% of the vote. Third, they perform better in areas that are confessionally mixed such as Ashrafieh and Rmeil in Beirut (with close to 9% of votes), compared to fully homogeneous districts, which are more prevalent in Sour and Akkar, where female candidates obtained only 3% of votes. Putting it differently, women candidates found themselves at a particular disadvantage in rural and least economically and socially progressive areas, meaning that they struggle to level the playing field with mostly incumbent male candidates in less competitive districts where traditional parties have a stranglehold on power. Fourth, diaspora voters gave their preferential votes to female candidates more than those who reside in Lebanon. Fifth, female voters had a slightly higher preference for female candidates compared to male voters, although the gap was not considerably large (5.3% vs. 4.5%).
Finally, voters from different confessions provided varied levels of support to female candidates: While no more than 4.5% of Druze, Alawite, Maronite, and Shias voted for female candidates, 9.7% did so among minority Christians and 8.2% among Greek Orthodox. Sunni voters seem to fall between the two poles with 6.4% voting for women.
In most instances, citizens who have the option to vote for a female candidate of their own confession are more likely to do so than those who do not have that option, suggesting that sectarian lines trump gender preferences. However, the paradigmatic low vote for female candidates among the Shia community goes beyond purely confessional lines to loyalty toward the main Shia political parties. In other words, even when Shia voters can cast their ballot for a female Shia candidate who is not from Amal or Hezbollah, they most often opt for a candidate from an established Shia political party.
In sum, women face huge barriers to entering parliament. To ensure their representation in the legislature, there is an immediate need to re-open the debate over women’s representation in the parliament and impose a women quota in the next electoral law. Despite paying lip service to a women quota, political elites are reluctant to facilitate the entry of women into the parliament. Some have placed the onus on voters who, according to them, prefer men over women. Others went further, saying that the job of parliamentarians in Lebanon is not suitable for women as MPs must engage in social functions such as attending weddings and funerals or resolving conflicts in their districts. Both assertions are facile. For one, women candidates who ran on political party lists and have been fully endorsed by political leaders performed well in the election. This suggests that voters are willing to elect female candidates once they have the blessings of a zaim. As for the job not being suited for women, it is about time to elect women to the parliament so they can have the opportunity to actually fulfill the job description of MPs, which entails legislating and conducting oversight. Perhaps when women are properly represented in parliament, our national legislature will be able to assume its constitutional role and better represent citizens’ needs.
This article is part of a larger study being conducted by LCPS on the 2018 parliamentary election in partnership with Hivos and within the framework of the Women Empowered for Leadership Programme.

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