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Research project

Contested clientelisms: the evolution of patronage politics under stress in contemporary Lebanon

This project has been funded via the EUI-IHEID joint call 2023.

When do democratic polities transition away from a clientelist paradigm and toward amore programmatic one? The past decade of social science scholarship has significantly altered our approach to this question, while leaving key questions unanswered regarding how and why clientelism evolves over time. Existing accounts of how clientelist practices change center on economic growth: as individuals grow wealthier, they become less reliant on material favors from political elites and more likely to vote according to a programmatic policy. Yet this hypothesis is difficult to test and, where examined, finds little empirical backing. Moreover, consequences of the inverse phenomenon – economic decline or collapse – remain almost totally unexamined. The project aims to rectify this gap, examining the evolution of patron-clientelism in the context of Lebanon’s post-2019 economic meltdown.

One one hand, the understanding of clientelism as a phenomenon appears to have advanced, however, there has been little progress in our understanding of how and why democracies transition from prevalent clientelism to programmatic politics. The project thus attempts to turn existing accounts of clientelism on their head, and ask: how do clientelist linkages react to stressors derived from decline –namely, economic crisis, state failure, and new entrant politicians? How does the nature and extent of these exchanges evolve? Do they flourish, stagnate – or fail?

To answer these questions, this project turns to Lebanon, a country characterized by systemic levels of clientelism and patronage, controlled by an entrenched political elite of militias turned-parties whose reign rests on an intricate capitalization of ethnic communitarianism and kinship that penetrates virtually all sectors of state, society and economy (Traboulsi2007, Leenders 2012, Cammett 2014, Baumann 2017). Between 2019 and 2022,Lebanon experienced state bankruptcy, a near total collapse of the economy, and largescale anti-government protests. National elections in May 2022 brought a series of oppositional, pro-reform candidates to power, who now constitute approximately 10 percent of the Parliament – with incumbent parties still holding the vast majority of power. Within this context, the project investigates three "stressors" on clientelist politics:

(1) Emigration, particularly the impact of exit by members and/or leaders of locally dominant clans on electoral outcomes at polling stations where the clan is dominant.

(2) Loss of patron resources, particularly the use of international aid and coercion as substitution for dwindling patronage resources, and their effect on electoral outcomes.

(3) New entrant interventions, particularly how different strategic postures by new political entrants towards local ethnic and kin-based notables affect clientelist practices and electoral outcomes.

External Partners

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