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How local governance undermines democracy in Lebanon

With support from the King Center, Stanford PhD candidate Christiana Parreira studies how municipal governments function—or not—in Lebanon.
Tripoli, Lebanon
Tripoli, Lebanon. Credit: Christiana Parreira
Government and Institutions

In April, after weeks of relative quiet in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus, protesters in Lebanon returned to the streets to denounce corruption, inequality, and a lack of basic social services.

The country’s upheaval began last fall, resulting in the resignation of then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri. But, according to Christiana Parreira, a Stanford King Center on Global Development research funding recipient, the protests are in part a response to a decades-old political system in which cartel-like parties win elections and stay in power despite their inability—or unwillingness—to provide basic services to the Lebanese people. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Bank predicted that the percentage of people living below the poverty line in Lebanon could rise from 30 percent to 50 percent.

“You have a system of electoral politics where people feel like they have no real choices,” says Parreira, a PhD candidate in political science at Stanford who is currently a pre-doctoral research fellow with the Middle East Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School. “That is one structural factor underlying why people are protesting and why people are using non-electoral ways to mobilize.”  

Politics is Local

Christiana Parreira
Christiana Parreira

With support from the King Center, Parreira spent three years researching how local governance has evolved in Lebanon since the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990 and led to a series of national unity governments formed by political elites from parties created during or shortly after the conflict. The results are a rare look into how local, democratic governments function—or not, as the case may be—in a post-conflict, multi-ethnic country.

The work is about “understanding how different institutions constrain the ability of democracy to actually produce good outcomes for people,” she says. “The theoretical presumption of how a democracy is supposed to work is complicated by how it works in reality.”

During a trip to Lebanon in 2016, Parreira kept hearing the same refrain: local governments are the country’s best hope for reform, but they are also part of the problem—the foothold elites use to entrench themselves in the system. Because Parreira hadn’t seen much literature on that specific topic, she decided to study it herself.

“In the Stanford comparative politics group, we have emphasized the importance of linking deep local knowledge to broad theoretical issues,” says Professor David D. Laitin, one of the co-chairs on Parreira’s dissertation committee and a King Center faculty affiliate. “Christiana’s research has been exemplary in this regard. Garbage collection and electrical grids were, in her eyes, the key to post-civil war stability. The local institutions that could provide these services had often been ignored in the political science literature, and she focused new attention on them.”

Parreira’s first challenge was a lack of data: Lebanon hasn’t produced a census in nearly a century. But she wasn’t deterred. With funding from the King Center and others, she collaborated with surveyors in Lebanon to conduct a confidential national survey covering everything from demographic information to questions about clientelism and voting records. She also interviewed 142 political figures, used existing electoral data, and relied on the results of a Lebanese Center for Policy Studies survey of more than 1,000 municipal officials. 

In some ways, Lebanon’s local politics can be summed up in the tale of two trash mountains. One, formed over decades of ineffective waste management in Saida, a city just south of Beirut, was dismantled after a mayor loyal to a powerful political party arranged for its removal – using a vendor connected to that party. The other mountain in Tripoli, a metropolis north of Beirut, still towers over that city despite the efforts of several municipal councilors who were stymied at every turn by a lack of funding, bureaucratic red tape, and opposition from councilors beholden to other parties. Parreira says people she spoke to in Saida would prefer a less corrupt process but are “resigned” to the process they have because “the counterfactual would be like Tripoli—not getting resolved at all.”

One of Parreira’s key findings is that, in this “patchwork” system where some municipalities benefit from their close ties to powerful parties and others are punished for not having such ties, there is no real opportunity for political engagement. Again, Saida and Tripoli illustrate the point; protests have roiled both cities, despite their different circumstances.

“People are fed up with a lack of governance and also fed up with governance that’s contingent on supporting parties that don’t do that much in the first place,” Parreira says.

Part of the Bigger Picture

Parreira will start a position as a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies in the fall. She has already published one piece about her Lebanon findings. She also plans to turn her dissertation—which relies heavily on data from the survey supported by the King Center—into separate journal articles and, eventually, a book.

Ultimately, her goal is to contribute to the study of democracy in post-conflict societies, not to influence policy in Lebanon—“There are a lot of people in Lebanon working on these issues from a policy perspective,” she says.

But Parreira’s research also has broader implications for the study of democracy more generally. After all, plenty of other democratic countries have non-violent means of suppressing voters.

Parreira says she hopes her work helps Lebanese people see their situation in the bigger-picture context of democratic struggles.

“A lot of people say, ‘It’s our fault. We should have voted these people out of office,’” she says. “But that’s overlooking a lot of the institutional constraints. I hope this research highlights how difficult that kind of wholesale change is, but also how worthwhile it is to strive for.”