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Sami Atallah and Mohamad Diab, respectively LCPS executive director and LCPS research associate

April 2018
By and Large, Politicians Don’t Know the Issues

As part of LCPS’s work on monitoring the Lebanese Parliament, we are publishing a series of articles on the performance of the country’s national legislative body. These articles will focus on issues ranging from coherence among aligned parties and MPs, to the relationship lawmakers have with constituents.
This article assesses MP’s stated positions on an array of policy issues to determine which issues they agree on, those on which they disagree, and the extent to which their positions are consistent with those of their party.
In the midst of election season, political parties have unleashed a series of policy promises ranging from decentralization to balanced development and from universal healthcare to pension reform. While it hardly takes any effort for them to express such policy views, explaining how to best achieve them is an entirely different task. It requires that politicians have a minimum level of policy knowledge as well as consistency across a number of inter-related issues for their promises to be credible. In other words, to call for a specific policy such as providing universal healthcare or fighting poverty, political parties must propose fiscal measures to meet those goals.
As part of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies’ work on the parliament, we sought to identify the policy positions of MPs over a set of twenty-seven issues—including decentralization, taxes, poverty, healthcare, support for the productive sector, rental laws, public services, public property, women’s rights, and capital punishment, among others—as well as determine the level of commitment to advocating for these policies by examining their consistency across related policies. To accomplish this, we interviewed sixty-five MPs from different political parties—those who have accepted to see us—out of 128 legislators in 2015 and 2016 to ask them what their policy preferences are.
At first glance, MPs seem to be very supportive of providing universal healthcare to citizens, widening  decentralization to the qada level, mitigating social disparities, protecting public property, reducing or even annulling taxes on basic consumption goods, and bestowing upon women the right to pass on Lebanese nationality to their spouses and children. However, their endorsement fades as one takes a deeper look at their preferences in relation to other policies. 
Consider decentralization. Although MPs strongly support the establishment of qada councils, there is less consensus across political blocs regarding their mandates. Some MPs support wide responsibilities being entrusted to qada councils so they can develop and implement projects, while others believe that their mandates should be confined to few responsibilities. Holding opposing views is not inherently problematic but the inconsistency shown by MPs when asked about the fiscal resources that should be entrusted to the qada councils is worrying.  
When we compared MPs’ stated positions on qada’s responsibilities versus fiscal resources to be granted to these qadas, several issues emerged. One-quarter of interviewed MPs had an inconsistent view on decentralization. They favored limited authority to qada councils but would grant them considerable fiscal resources, which is not commensurate with their responsibilities. Another twenty-one MPs—one-third of those interviewed—seem to be overzealous about decentralization to the extent that it is detrimental to the state as they favor granting qada councils wide authority while also providing them with considerably more fiscal resources than required, exceeding the 35% ratio international benchmark. Clearly, there is at best lack of clarity on how to move forward on decentralization.
On another set of policies, MPs strongly support state efforts to mitigate social disparities and develop comprehensive poverty programs but they are not willing to complement them with necessary policies to reach those ends. For instance, mitigating social disparities can be dealt with in various ways such as reducing consumption taxes, increasing income or profit taxes, developing poverty programs, or revising the rental law of 2014 or any combination of the above. Out of the forty-three MPs who support reducing social disparities, only twenty-nine are willing to reduce consumption taxes, which could help reduce the gap since consumption tax is regressive. Only twenty-four are willing to increase taxes on income and profits,[1] and only seventeen want to annul the rental law of 2014.
In other instances, MPs across the political spectrum may hold similar policy views but this convergence has not been capitalized on to become a law. Take for example healthcare. While MPs overwhelmingly supported providing universal healthcare to citizens, this consensus failed to materialize into a policy that benefits citizens. In the meantime, the rental law, which was passed in 2014 by parliament, seems to be the most controversial out of the twenty-seven issues with the least degree of consensus among the MPs that we have met. Roughly one-third of MPs were supportive of the 2014 rental law and the remaining two-thirds were either opposed or neutral. With such narrow support, it is surprising that the law mustered enough votes. So how is it that an issue with little effective support becomes a law whereas universal health care which enjoys a high level of consensus fails to materialize? This casts a big shadow either on the honesty of their policy positions during the interview or in their ability to capitalize on consensus and transform it into a policy that addresses peoples’ needs.
While MPs and current candidates will be juggling policy positions, they are hardly credible unless specifics are provided. Certainly, some of these MPs could engage in substantive and policy-based dialogue with the public and their legislative colleagues. Yet, many have demonstrated that in their time as lawmakers, they clearly do not understand the issues at hand or are not willing to work in the public interest. Ameliorating this would likely require a shift—if ever so gradual—among the electorate, one which demands competency among the country’s elected leaders. Then it could be expected that candidates and parties adopt policy platforms and clearly favor specific policies during political campaigns.

[1] In fact, only 20 out of 43 MPs are willing to reduce consumption tax and increase capital tax. In effect, this gives little support for income gap mitigation.

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