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Another unity government won’t solve Lebanon’s crisis

Research shows ideologically opposed parties rarely share power well

- August 20, 2020

Lebanon’s government resigned on Aug. 10, days after a massive explosion at the Port of Beirut left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes. The blast appears to have occurred as a result of government negligence, with scores of officials aware of the dangers posed by explosives at the port since 2014.

In the aftermath, some are calling for the formation of a national unity government composed of all the country’s major political parties. They say broad consensus from all of Lebanon’s elite representatives is necessary to rebuild and restore order.

In reality, as analysts point out, almost all of Lebanon’s governments since 2005 have been formed on the principle of national unity. In my dissertation research, I characterize Lebanon’s post-2005 governance system as rule by “party cartel,” a concept several scholars developed using case studies from across the Global South.

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What’s a party cartel system?

This system describes a post-election government that includes representatives from all major parties — regardless of their ideology or policy agenda. For a variety of reasons, in Lebanon and other countries, party cartels are consistently associated with a track record of bad governance.

If party cartels produce adverse outcomes, why do they form in the first place? Political competition is a foundational pillar of democratic societies. That’s what allows voters to reward their representatives for good performance and punish elites who govern poorly. But poorly regulated competition among elites can produce harmful outcomes, such as political violence or state breakdown, like the situation in Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. In the aftermath of episodes of profound political instability, a country’s leadership may see party cartels as a way to moderate competition to avoid further disorder.

During the past century, party cartel systems have formed in Indonesia, Bolivia, Colombia, Italy, Nepal and elsewhere. There are other cases — such as post-2003 Iraq — that partially or episodically meet the definition of a party cartel.

Notably, party cartel systems resemble, but are not conceptually identical to the “cartel of elites” associated with ethnic power-sharing. In these systems — including that of Lebanon — all major identity-based groups are required to be represented in the government. That being said, Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system does not necessitate a cartel that shares power between all major parties.

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A core feature of party cartels in Lebanon and elsewhere is that elites who are ideologically opposed must share power, as has happened in Lebanon since 2005 (and even often prior). As a result, they rarely push forward cohesive policy agendas, on a left-right spectrum or otherwise. Instead, these elite coalitions function analogously to the economic cartels with which many are familiar. Like OPEC, they work to limit the quantity of goods produced and block new competitors from entering the market. In the case of party cartels, participants limit the supply of governance and collude to prevent political opposition from offering voters alternative options.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that party cartels tend to result in pro-elite socioeconomic policies, welfare state retrenchment, and looting of state resources. This is true even in countries where the cartel includes parties that identify as leftist.

What party cartel rule produced in Lebanon

A recent McKinsey report ranked Lebanon’s infrastructure 113th out of 137 countries, despite its status (as of 2019) as an upper-middle income country. While the government spends heavily on solid waste management — nearly seven times as much per ton as Syria or Jordan — trash collection and treatment systems remain highly inadequate. Some of my research looks at how the government channels spending to politically connected firms, leaving waste management infrastructure chronically underfunded. Lebanon is also one of the most unequal states in the Middle East, with the top-10 percent of income earners receiving 55 percent of the national income, by some estimates.

Party cartels have eventually fallen apart in most countries. In several Latin American cases, protest mobilization and elections ousted such regimes. In some cases, their ouster led to the rise of new, anti-systemic political actors, like Evo Morales in Bolivia.

Since October 2019, Lebanon has seen a nationwide wave of protests targeting the country’s political elite class. The key catchphrase of the protest — “all of them means all of them”— references a common understanding that elite collusion lies at the heart of decades of governance failures. This suggests Lebanese already understand the dilemmas posed by the party cartel system.

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Other factors specific to the country may have reinforced Lebanon’s party cartel system. Politicized sectarian cleavages and the predominance of sect-based parties may make coordinating to vote the cartel out of power more difficult. That being said, Lebanese from all regions and sects have taken to the streets, united in anti-elite sentiments. Additionally, some analysts say the party cartel behaves maliciously due to specific parties therein, particularly Hezbollah. A global perspective, however, tells us party cartels produce poor governance by design, rather than due to the specific nature of their membership.

Before the explosion earlier this month, Lebanon already faced a dual political and financial crisis. Activists and scholars have already outlined a number of reform options — though Lebanon’s long-standing party cartel system appears ill-suited to accomplishing these tasks.

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Christiana Parreira is a PhD candidate in political science at Stanford University and an incoming postdoctoral associate at the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Follow her on Twitter @cmparreira.