Latest NDI Poll Results Show 45% of Lebanese Don’t Intend to Vote in 2022
A key instrument of change that is mentioned in any analysis of Lebanon’s current set of crises and prospects for recovery is the holding of free and fair elections. With the recent rescheduling of the upcoming 2022 elections, shifted from early May to late March, there is an even greater sense of déjà vu that the results will maintain the status quo and not auger a better future for Lebanon. In fact, one analyst suggested that the March date was chosen to thwart an unfavorable shifting in voter registrations, due to take place on March 31.
There are many initiatives going on at the same time. Opposition groups are working on a common strategy; old line parties are angling to produce joint lists in order to frustrate the opposition; and indicators show that most people perceive the elections, under the current leadership and system, to be a waste of time.
The NDI report, entitled “No More Politics-as-Usual: Lebanese Unite Behind Key Reforms,” states that “To assess the current state of politics and possibilities for reform during such a critical time, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) conducted quantitative and qualitative public opinion research between March and June 2021, that examined the legacy of the protest movement, how people feel about the government, political parties, and politicians, who citizens trust to represent their needs, and what people see as the best possibilities for reform.”
The polling included over 2400 interviews – conducted via telephone due to Covid risks and distributed across geography, sect, and gender – as well as 15 focus groups, digging deeper into the issues covered in the research. Both the narrative form of the results and a slide deck can be found here.
While the spirits of the demonstrators of October 17, 2019 may have diminished in volume, there seems to be a majority of people who have maintained their demands for a wholesale change in Lebanon’s governing system. As the report also notes: “… Lebanese people from all parts of the country, all religious affiliations, and all demographic groups agree upon a way forward that could lead them out of the current crises and establish a better political foundation for the future. Overwhelmingly, citizens want to eliminate the sectarian basis on which political offices are currently determined, enact comprehensive electoral reform, and support emerging political leaders, civic actors, and new candidates. They want to move away from conducting politics as it has been for the last several decades and rely instead on people with expertise, policy ideas, and non-partisan affiliations.”
While this sounds like a platform from a playbook for democracy building, this finding takes on greater urgency as the country rapidly wastes away economically, its young professionals emigrate daily, and the humanitarian crises worsen significantly. Some greater details may be helpful to understand the perspectives of those polled as well as the implications for the body politic and political system in Lebanon.
Prime Minister Mikati has said in several interviews that his main challenge is establishing trust – with the people, the private sector, and the international community. Buttressing his point, the report observes that, “There is a pervasive lack of trust of politicians and officials at all levels of government and of political parties in general, as well as a lack of trust in what citizens see as a biased media ecosphere controlled by the political parties.”
No level of government was exempt from being characterized as dysfunctional and riddled by corruption and cronyism, on both the national and municipal levels of a political system where “politicians win office and then use their position to benefit themselves, family members, friends, and patrons, rather than their actual constituencies.”
This distrust of government is pervasive as the respondents said that they do not seek guidance from traditional political or religious sources but instead prefer discussions with friends and family members.
In fact, “more than 50% of survey respondents [expressed] that both the media and religious institutions are untrustworthy.” Very few institutions are trusted or seen as immune to the corruption, with the exception of the LAF which garnered an 80% level of trust from respondents in both the polls and focus groups.
On the policy front, the report shows how “People want policies enacted that will stimulate job growth, reduce inflation, deliver support to vulnerable families, and maintain subsidies on wheat, fuel, and medicine. However, even more than such quality of life indicators being improved, people expressed that the most urgent reform priority is for a new election law.” The aim of election reform is to eliminate the sectarian basis for voting and subsequently the channels through which public sector jobs and services are allocated.
On the subject of participation in the elections, “… 45% of respondents said they would not vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections.” Many felt that for whomever they voted, there would only be more of the same, as the traditional parties maintain control of the electoral process by manipulating the rules to favor existing power brokers.
When given a chance to dig deeper into participant responses in the focus groups, “citizens also examined their own actions and admonished fellow citizens and themselves for repeatedly voting for the same politicians and participating in the same flawed system, regardless of past failures and controversies and despite knowing the limitations and shortcomings of the system.” This distrust extends to the municipalities wherein “municipal officials consider political parties to be their main clients and that they look out for those related to or affiliated politically with them, rather than serving constituents.”
When asked to define Lebanon’s greatest asset, 53% answered young people, despite challenges to upward mobility for young people and for women under the current system. Further research is needed to determine what impact social media has, if at all, given that “Only 36% of survey respondents express trust in the media, with 64% indicating a lack of trust in sources such as TV, radio stations, newspapers, and online news sites.”
In its conclusion, the report related that “Overwhelmingly, citizens want to eliminate the sectarian basis on which political offices are currently determined, enact comprehensive electoral reform, and support emerging political leaders, civic actors, and new candidates. They want to move away from conducting politics as it has been for the last several decades and rely instead on people with expertise, policy ideas, and non-partisan affiliations.”
A tall order for any country, even in a mature democracy like the US. So it seems that, irrespective of the outcomes following the upcoming Parliamentary and Presidential elections, Lebanon is on a different path in its second century – a roadmap that may enable the Lebanese to find an inclusive, free, and independent home that will serve as a center for excellence in the region once again.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.