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Sami Zoughaib, researcher at LCPS


February 2019
Lebanon’s New Government Must Contend with Citizens’ Pessimism

Nine months have passed since Lebanon held parliamentary elections but hardly a whiff of optimism can be sensed in the air. The drawn-out government formation process has mercifully come to an end but decisive action is needed by the new cabinet as it is imperative they take action to revive a sluggish economy, one which a number of experts contend is nearing crisis. The highly touted—but rarely acted upon—promises of reform and bettering the lives of citizens featured prominently in electoral campaigns and in political party statements following the formation of the government. Now these promises need to be realized because public pessimism is high and a general feeling of concern for the future is being felt across the country.
 
In order to get a reading on the pulse of the nation, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies examined the results of an opinion survey commissioned by the International Republican Institute in the fall of 2018 to determine citizens’ overall perceptions of their country and their personal priorities.
 
The fact that 95% of survey respondents think the country is heading in the wrong direction is indeed striking. However, by digging deeper into the collected data, it becomes apparent that feelings of pessimism are not shared equally among the population. For instance, respondents in higher income brackets expressed relatively optimistic views compared to those in lower income brackets.
 
Pessimism corresponds with a perception of deterioration in governance and the overall state of the economy. More than half of the survey respondents reported a worsening of the overall situation in the country since national elections were held in 2018, while 40% saw no change in the status quo and only 8% felt an improvement. This largely pessimistic outlook stems from the population’s growing concern over their livelihoods. Respondents were primarily concerned about the state of the economy (36%), followed by infrastructure (33%), corruption (16%), social problems (8%), and issues related to security and political conflict (7%). More specifically, corruption (16%), electricity (15%), employment (10 %), cost of living (10%), water (6%), and poverty (5%) were reported as the most salient issues. Concerns varied significantly across regions with economic concerns the most salient in Akkar (52%), Baalbek-Hermel (59%), and Bekaa (51.9%), while infrastructure deficiencies were the primary concern of respondents in Nabatiyeh (36.7%), Beirut (36.2%), Mount Lebanon (35.5%), the North (34.8%), and the South (36.4%).
 
Worries over the economy were most prevalent among younger age groups, a segment of society faced with the difficult task of entering the workforce. According to former Lebanese Labor Minister Mohammad Kabbara, some 36% of people under the age of 25 are not employed despite being active in job searches. Given the growth slowdown since 2011, Lebanon’s economy does not generate nearly enough jobs to accommodate the growing number of graduates. Moreover, with the prevalence of informal employers in the country, salaries for younger age groups are deflated.
 
Economic concerns are a staple of Lebanon’s lagging regions. In fact, the perception of economic problems in the three least developed governorates—Akkar, Baalbek-Hermel, and Bekaa—is far higher than in other more developed regions.
 
One characteristic seems to ease the economic burden, namely, being a member of a political party. Taking into account other variations, political party membership seems to correspond with lower reporting of economic concerns. Put more succinctly, members of political parties are less concerned about employment opportunities and the cost of living.
 
While economic concerns were most frequently reported, infrastructure concerns were recorded across survey respondents and seem to equally affect different segments of the population. Lebanon’s quality of infrastructure in 2017 was among the poorest in the world—130 out of 137 countries according to World Economic Forum. The Syrian crisis—and the population shock that stemmed from the inflow of about 1 million refugees—highlighted and in some cases exacerbated the already poor state of national infrastructure. Taking this into account, it is not striking that concerns about infrastructure are shared across segments of the population.
 
Despite a history of conflict across Lebanon, and given recent events and threats stemming from the spillover of the Syrian crisis, security concerns were not as frequently reported by survey respondents. However, these concerns were most prevalent in southern districts—Nabatiyeh and the South—a result of the proximity of these governorates to the southern border and the 900 incidents of border conflicts recorded in them during 2018.
 
Lebanon’s unconventional social welfare system, which is primarily based on the activity of non-state actors—mainly political parties—seems to be mitigating the negative effects of gaps in welfare which stem from state inefficiencies. In 2017, Lebanon ranked positively in health and primary education globally at 72 out of 137 countries. Some pressure has been added in recent months, specifically on permanent accommodation seekers due to Banque du Liban’s decision to halt subsidized housing loans. However, the survey results show that social problems are not heavily cited by Lebanese, as only 8% of respondents expressed concerns about social benefits, education, healthcare, and housing.  
 
So, it seems we have escaped our latest round of political deadlock. Now, it is imperative that the new cabinet utilize inclusive and more participatory policy-making processes that aim to fill the gaps in citizens’ livelihoods identified in this article. But even the wider public seems to have tempered its high hopes as the survey results show that 64% of respondents do not think that political parties listen to their supporters when shaping their platforms, and 73% think the same for non-supporters. It seems that Lebanon’s political leadership would face a tough battle in gaining citizens’ trust. For them to gain this trust, the cabinet cannot simply resign to business as usual but must instead be inclusive and formulate policy in a collective manner.  







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