Political Parties in Postwar Lebanon: Parties in Search of Partisans

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This article examines the performance of political parties in postwar Lebanon against the benchmark of parties in the prewar period. Parties turned into militias during Lebanon's fifteen-year war and reverted to their party status with the ending of the war in 1990. In postwar Lebanon parties face several problems partly generated by their inability to recover from wartime practices and partly because of the built-in limitations in the political system inhibiting competitive politics. Some parties are banned; others have access to political and financial rewards and thus have a stake in preserving the status quo. In this sense, parties are performing functions similar to those performed by parties in authoritarian regimes.

Political parties have been active in Lebanon ever since the state was formed in the early 1920s. The "first generation" of political parties emerged during the French Mandate (1920-1943) and was followed by a "second generation" after independence in 1943, and a "third generation" in wartime Lebanon (1975-1990). From independence until the outbreak of war, the influence of political parties was continuously on the rise in local and national politics, reaching a peak in the first half of the 1970s. In the 1972 parliamentary elections - the last held before the outbreak of war - the seven political parties represented in parliament made up over 30% of parliamentary seats.

Lebanon does not have a party system, as in the case of two-party or multi-party systems in functioning democracies. The political process is centered on party-based politics as well as on non-partisan "independent" politicians. Although no party in Lebanon reached power and ruled as parties do in parliamentary systems, parties have shaped parliamentary debates and participated in government, and party leaders, particularly those of established parties, are influential political figures.

Unlike parties in Arab countries, Lebanon's parties have represented a wide spectrum of political, communal, and ideological platforms reflecting the diverse political landscape both in Lebanon and in its Arab regional order.1 With no authoritarian state in Lebanon, no ruling party, and no official state ideology, parties have greatly benefited from Lebanon's openness and competitive political process. Parties were able to express views and propagate ideologies, particularly nationalist parties, in ways that were not possible in the largely one-party and/or one-man pattern of rule in the Arab world. Despite the banning of some political parties in Lebanon with leftist and nationalist leanings, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, these parties were able to organize, attract new recruits, and even participate in parliamentary elections.

Lebanon's parties, however, were not without limitations and problems: they have generally reflected the communal nature of society and few were able to overcome the confessional barrier. As for secular-oriented parties, they shared a rigid political platform and were subject to various political and ideological influences emanating from Arab politics. In general, parties have failed to promote national integration and were not able to establish mechanisms for cooperation - except on election day through the formation of temporary electoral alliances. Common to all parties was the absence of internal democratic practice. The internal organization, belief-system, and power structure of parties were not conducive to democratic practice, transparency, and accountability.2 Parties have also nurtured the personality cult of the party founder and/or leader, and few were able to maintain cohesion and abide by their original political platform beyond the founder's lifetime.

Another feature shared by parties in Lebanon concerns their involvement in armed conflict. Most parties were predisposed politically and ideologically to transform themselves into militia forces in crisis situations linked to regional turmoil. …