How Does Lebanon Rate on the Democracy Index?

Tuesday, January 15, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

Local activists have signaled a resumption of demonstrations and protests on January 12 although analysts are not sure that there will be much public appetite for a large-scale turnout. According to Karim Bitar, Director of Research at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, “People know perfectly that a new government will not bring about genuine change. The Lebanese are angry, but they are not naive. It is understood that a new government — if or when it is formed — will be a close replica of the current government of oligarchs.” According to Bitar, this general sentiment will also lead to the ultimate die-out of future demonstrations.

That comment reinforces the assessments of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2018 that looked at the state of democracy for 165 independent states and two territories. “The Democracy Index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Based on its scores on a range of indicators within these categories, each country is then itself classified as one of four types of regime: ‘full democracy,’ ‘flawed democracy,’ ‘hybrid regime,’ and ‘authoritarian regime.’” This is the 11th edition of the report.

The report noted that “Only the Middle East and North Africa registered a decline in political participation in 2018, and Lebanon is no exception. What has changed, it pointed out, is that there was an increase in “the proportion of the population willing to engage in lawful demonstrations…Even in the Middle East and North Africa, where the population is increasingly disillusioned with electoral politics (in the countries in the region where elections are at least somewhat meaningful), there has been a noticeable increase over the past year in public willingness to engage in public protest, both through traditional means and, increasingly, using social media and other tools.”

Overall, the MENA region had the lowest scores globally for political participation as “confidence in democracy is on the wane. In fact, in 2018 the score for perceptions of democracy suffered its biggest fall in the index since 2010.” Reflecting the reactive impulse of governments to treat any opposition as a security threat, “In the past decade, in fact, no scores in the Democracy Index have deteriorated more than those related to freedom of expression and the presence of free print and electronic media. These trends continued into 2018 and were compounded by a disturbing deterioration in scores related to the use of torture by the state, and to the perception that human rights are well protected.”

The report notes that Lebanon is still awaiting “significant progress” in the formation of its new government “with intense sectarian rivalries overlaid by sharply contrasting regional loyalties that continue to hamper politics severely.” Civil society has responded with growing yet sporadic attempts to challenge the existing power elite which has not advanced the country’s infrastructure, is riddled with corruption, and is inadequate in meeting the needs of citizens.

Without a vibrant and inclusive political culture, there is little commitment of Lebanese to their government. Despite a nine-year hiatus between parliamentary voting, turnout in 2018 fell below 50% with little “space for civil society and other groups without a specific confessional basis to progress, and this has led the public to engage politically through other means.” This level of participation is tied directly to another weakness exhibited by the Lebanese data, that is ‘confidence in government,’ as more and more people indicate their lack of trust in their leaders.

In terms of its year on year rating, Lebanon had its best overall score in 2008, which had dropped since 2006, with big drops from 2010 to 2011 and 2014 to 2015, periods related to upswings in public demonstrations. It has always been categorized as a “hybrid regime,” which exhibit weakness in political culture, government functioning, and level of political participation. “Corruption tends to be widespread and the rule of law is weak. Civil society is weak.”

Another critical indicator of the health of a democracy is the inclusive and consistent performance of the economy. With the recent Goldman-Sachs report on how Lebanon’s public debt may lead to disastrous consequences for investors, the dysfunctional nature of the financial system tied to the economy’s performance was once again highlighted. While the threat of debt restructuring was quickly denied by Lebanese authorities, “The contradictory statements by Lebanese officials reflect deeper divisions among the country’s major parties over how to tackle Lebanon’s fiscal and economic woes particularly when it comes to its soaring debt, increasingly negative balance of payment, and mounting pressure to maintain the Lira peg against the dollar.”

As the Lebanese public continues to be on the periphery of these discussions, although the outcomes greatly impact their livelihoods, security, and stability, it is no surprise that their confidence in the system of governance continues to erode.