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Sami Atallah, LCPS executive director

April 2018
Addressing Citizens’ Concerns is not on the Parliament’s Agenda

As part of LCPS's work on evaluating the performance of the Lebanese Parliament and its members, we are publishing a series of articles that address a range of issues hindering the legislative process. These articles are largely based on a forthcoming book that studies parliamentary performance published by LCPS and edited by Sami Atallah and Nayla Geagea.
This article examines the extent to which proposed legislation and passed laws have addressed citizens’ priorities over the last eight years.

Once elected, parliamentarians are expected to legislate bills that address citizens’ concerns and needs. LCPS thoroughly examined the extent to which the Lebanese parliament did so over the last nine years and found that only a fraction of passed laws directly relate to peoples’ priorities. Put more succinctly, MPs do not know citizens’ concerns nor do they care to engage in citizen-centered legislating during parliamentary sessions.   
To determine the extent to which the Lebanese parliament has and is attempting to meet citizens’ needs, we first asked a representative sample of 2,496 Lebanese citizens to rank their priorities and compared that to what 65 MPs—those who accepted to meet with us—think peoples’ needs are. We found that MPs’ priorities do not correspond well with those of citizens. 
Out of thirty-five issues that were presented to citizens, six out of the seven were socio-economic in nature. For instance, 21% of citizens identified increases in the price of goods as their primary concern, followed by 11% citing unemployment, 8% health and education costs, 7% electricity and water supply, 6% terrorism, 6% solid waste treatment, and 5% a rise in poverty. 
MPs had a different set of priorities. Only three out of their seven listed concerns overlapped with citizens’ priorities. For instance, 13% of MPs stated that unemployment is the number one public concern, 6% ranked price increases as the fifth concern, and 5% ranked health and education costs seventh. However, when looking at intensity rather than ranking of priorities, the difference is more striking. While 58% of citizens highlighted socio-economic challenges such as unemployment, increase in prices, health, education, electricity, and water to be of concern, only 30% of MPs shared these concerns. 
The fact that MPs’ lists of concerns do not match those of citizens indicates they are not actively addressing peoples’ priorities, even if inadvertently. To address this, LCPS examined all 352 laws that were passed from June 2009 to April 2017 to determine how many address peoples’ needs. Unfortunately, laws passed by the parliament over the last eight years fell short of addressing people’s priorities. 
Unemployment, rising prices, and poverty are issues which cannot be addressed via a specific piece of legislation. As a result, we confined our exercise to remaining concerns that are sectoral in nature: Health, education, water, and electricity. Out of the selected 352 laws, only thirty-one addressed these concerns, comprising 9% of total laws passed. These laws include approved loans to establish and implement educational development projects, regulate school fees in private schools, water projects across the country, and an anti-smoking bill. Worse yet, out of the thirty-one laws, only five were proposed by MPs. The remaining twenty-six laws were either drafted by ministries (a total of five) or were loan agreements (twenty-one) with organizations like the Kuwait Fund for economic Development, Islamic Development Bank, European Bank for Investment, Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development, and the World Bank, among others. 
The fact that the parliament could not do a better job in addressing these concerns may be due to the fact that political parties are not in agreement over how best to resolve challenges facing citizens. In other words, they could be deliberating these issues but disagreeing on the best way to move forward. To this end, we quantified the frequency with which peoples’ priorities that were mentioned by MPs. To our dismay, peoples’ concerns are not on the minds of parliamentarians as they rarely discuss such issues. For instance, in the thirty-seven sessions that were held during this period, an increase in prices was mentioned ninety times, unemployment sixty times, waste management eighty-eight times, and poverty eighty-one times. In other words, each issue was mentioned from one to three times by all parliamentarians present in all sessions. When comparing the instances in which these issues were broached in parliament to others, their frequency comprises 7% compared to other concerns such as war with Israel, judicial reform, crimes, security related issues, and sectarianism, among others. In other words, issues of primary concern to citizens are rarely discussed. 
Adding insult to injury, MPs seem to bring up some socio-economic issues in vote of confidence sessions, which are aired on television, while they generally ignore them in legislative sessions where they would otherwise matter most. Take for instance unemployment, which more than half of the time was brought up in vote of confidence sessions. Even when brought up during legislative sessions, unemployment is mentioned as a national concern that requires solutions without necessarily proposing any practical strategies to address it. 
However, the ability of MPs to deal with challenges facing the country has deeper roots: They do not know basic information about the economy and peoples’ wellbeing. Take for example unemployment. Only 37% of interviewed MPs knew what the rate is (any answer between 15% and 25% was deemed correct). Equally bad is that 40% of MPs thought that the unemployment rate was above 25%, which if true would be very alarming, especially since little effort is being exerted by parliamentarians to address actual unemployment. Furthermore, out of the twenty-six MPs who thought the unemployment rate exceeded that rate, only six bothered to classify it as a major concern in the country. 
As for poverty, which is also a major priority for citizens, only 26% of MPs correctly guessed or stated the poverty rate in the country, which we classified as 25% to 35%. Furthermore, 43% of MPs think the poverty rate is lower than 25%, which effectively means that they are not aware that poverty is a concern. Additionally, the inconsistency of MPs is alarming. While many thought that unemployment was so high, few of them would have considered that this leads to poverty. 
There is a lot to be desired to close the gap between citizens and their elected representatives. While most Lebanese know how ineffective parliament has been, these numbers confirm how indifferent and disconnected parliamentarians are concerning citizens’ needs. With the election around the corner, voters should make better decisions at the ballot box and elect MPs who will more often seek to champion their causes in the parliament.
“As part of this project, LCPS developed a web portal that provides information on the parliament and candidates in the upcoming election, including information on their policy positions and performance as legislators (http://niyabatanani.com/). We also invite you to view a series of infographics (http://niyabatanani.com/pdf/Infographics.pdf) that synthesize the performance of the parliament and its members.”

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