What Lebanon’s elections can teach us about the importance of religion

Source: The Washington Post

 May 5

Supporters of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is a candidate for the parliamentary elections to be held May 6, cheer in Beirut. (Hussein Malla/AP)

On Sunday, Lebanese citizens will vote in national elections for the first time since 2009. These are the first elections since the passage in June 2017 of a new electoral law and the first since the 2016 Beirut municipal elections, when a grass-roots campaign won almost 40 percent of votes, challenging Lebanon’s long-standing patronage-based sectarian parties.

Will that challenge actually change the voting behavior of Lebanese citizens on the national level? To test the relative influence of service provision, programmatic platforms and religious identity on citizens’ political behavior, we conducted a survey experiment in October and November 2017 in which 2,400 respondents were asked to choose between two hypothetical candidates whose profiles varied randomly on a range of attributes. We found that while specific types of clientelism and policy issues have some limited influence, voter preference remains most influenced by ethnicity and religion.

Clientelism is not just about short-term exchanges

Academic literature on politics in developing countries — including those with politicized ethnic and religious divides, like Lebanon — often highlights 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 — by 2 percent and 4 percent, respectively — to family members.

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