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Tamirace Fakhoury, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University

April 2020
Political Parties and Redistributive Power in the Lebanese State

LCPS solicited the opinion of key experts to answer one question: “Will the financial crisis, exacerbated further by COVID-19, strengthen or loosen the power of Lebanon’s governing political parties?” We invite you to read their different views in the next few days.
At first sight, we are tempted to think that, as economic resources have dried up and as the 2019 protests have discredited exploitative party politics, Lebanon’s governing political parties will most likely take a backseat in the country’s next chapter. We might also be tempted to think that their ability to act as crisis managers and providers of solutions and services in times of COVID-19 will be affected. At the same time, the issue is not that simple.
Arguably, this critical juncture will strengthen their powerbase. In a context of economic dependency and citizen vulnerability, it is likely that COVID-19, compounded by Lebanon’s economic meltdown, will only galvanize political parties’ patronage networks and capacity to act as “governors” and “saviors” in times of faltering national solutions.
A historical analysis of Lebanon’s political parties gives an insight into the manifold circuits of power through which they have maintained their resilient authority and, most importantly, justified their control over economic resources on the one hand, and over the management of crises on the other.
Since Lebanon’s inception, political parties have been both state and non-state actors that have worn several hats. They have claimed to represent their constituencies in state legislatures. They have also informally negotiated peace deals, and provided jobs and infrastructural services to their followers. Throughout the country’s civil war, some have reinvented themselves as guardians of fiefdoms, creating alternative financial systems and war economies to guarantee their survival and that of their community.
Against this backdrop, political parties have assumed important functions at the heart of what we call a state’s redistributive power, commonly defined in full-fledged democracies as the power to transfer money from rich to poor people. In Lebanon, these political parties have however reframed this concept into the power to transfer—or withhold—economic resources in such a way that would guarantee their predominance and, consequently, the stability of the system of which they claim to be the guardians.
Here are three complex ways through which they have managed to perpetuate their control over redistributive power and to redeploy it amid the challenging COVID-19 times:
First, historically, they have consolidated their access to resources by persuading their constituencies that a small state like Lebanon, with few resources and limited industrial capacity, will only survive through a laissez-faire economy in which governing political parties know best how to divide “scarce resources” between communities. In that regard, citizens’ everyday lives are closely intertwined with political parties’ neoliberal practices.
Second, Lebanon’s political parties have claimed access to this redistributive power through means such as securitization and co-optation. Throughout several crises that are both of financial and geopolitical nature, they have deployed the narrative that Lebanon is a divided multi-sectarian state exposed to turbulence and sectarian war. Here, political parties’ leaders have argued that it is in the best interest of their constituencies not to rock the boat.
Third, traditional political parties have argued that encouraging an overhaul of the political system might result in the rise of demographic majorities. This could threaten Lebanon’s precarious National Pact of 1943. In the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings and Lebanon’s 2019 thawra, governing parties have diffused the narrative that revolutions and system change entail only perilous risks for social coexistence in Lebanon.
In sum, by deploying a variety of discursive, geopolitical, and security narratives, political parties have ensured that their grip over economic resources is nested within complex policy and discursive practices.
In this setting, the outbreak of the pandemic provides an enabling terrain for the (re)activation and the strengthening of their grip over social and economic structures. When the pandemic broke out in Lebanon, it soon became evident that the state’s structures and services, especially in terms of healthcare and health services, are almost nonexistent. Since then, political parties have branded themselves as crisis managers who can step in and provide livelihoods and protection for their communities. In the context of absent welfare policies, they have competed over offering donations and creating philanthropic networks. Some have also reactivated their paramedical wings and para-institutional charities in a so-called effort to fill in the state’s “governance voids.”

Disentangling, exposing, and disrupting the practices of Lebanon’s political parties through graffiti, slogans, and communiqués is a key accomplishment that Lebanon’s thawra has so far achieved. Creating however an alternative and a viable mechanism of redistributive power remains the key challenge. This necessity becomes even more evident in times of economic meltdown aggravated by a highly disruptive pandemic.

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