Political marketing in LebanonLebanon has an interesting and complicated political system based on its history and demographics. The current political and economic situation in Lebanon does also influence the attitude of population towards parties that constitute political spectrum of the country. Samer El-Hajjar, Beirut-based political marketing expert provides information on the challenges of traditional and new parties, characteristics of political marketing in his nation. 


Interviewer: Rusif Huseynov


Huseynov: What are the challenges faced by Lebanese political parties?

El-Hajjar: One of the main challenges faced by Lebanese political parties is to regain confidence among the population, especially the youth. The rubbish crisis, the bad economic situation, the delays of parliamentary elections, and other factors, have served to create a decided political alienation among younger citizens against the parties in power. The question that almost everyone is asking at present is how Lebanese politicians will react to this hyper-skepticism by potential constituents? And what are the efficient traditional techniques that can change the game in the next elections?


What are the characteristics of political marketing in Lebanon?

For some time, Lebanese political actors have not hesitated to use sectarian discourse. While this sectarian discourse has deeply embedded a structure that prevents the flow of change, it has nevertheless been able to attract voters and to help politicians gain popularity. The main objective of such a discourse is to persuade the sectarian communities that they are under attack, and that fortresses are the only way to protect the group. The reaction to fears often leads to self-fulfilling prophecies, as the same attitude prevails across confessions. The Lebanese political leaders may do not incite sectarian hatred, but the way they were empowered and their monopoly on religious matters inhibit social and political integration among various religious communities and reinforce sectarian divisions in the Lebanese society. In addition, almost all the political parties in Lebanon are dependent on foreign countries that prefer to support various partisan interest and sectarian formations.

Moreover, the power and charisma of local leaders are a basis of success among Lebanese politicians. Before any crucial election, we may hear many times: “he has many problems, he is corrupted, I know this, but I love him and I will vote for his party.” This sentence surely reflects the charisma of the leader but also his power. The concept of power in Lebanon is a bit different. It means above anything the ability and the quality of services offered to voters: jobs, monthly subsidies, or even hospital bills. So, there is also a fear among the Lebanese population deriving from the ongoing, current social and economic difficulties. Today, young people believe that the only path to obtain social services is to go through the sectarian channels. For example, according to James Love , the robust social services program is the glue that binds the people to the political army of Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

In other words, elections in Lebanon are nothing but a four-year assessment of the size of Lebanese sectarian communities and the balance of power between them. Next to the sectarian discourse, Lebanese politicians are more than talented in sending emotional messages to their supporters. Political assassinations, war, and socio-economic disenfranchisement, the recommendations of the clergy provide the milieu from which these emotional discourses emerge. The affective messages are also driven by the fact that many political actors do not have clear ideologies since they were militias with sectarian views.  Even young politicians who start with a political ideology, they end up using a purely emotional message without mentioning their political ideologies.  


Will the traditional political promotional tools be used again in next election? 

In my very humble opinion, the traditional political promotional tools are still very much extant and will be used again by Lebanese political parties going forward. Almost all political parties will rely once again on: sectarianism, creation of fear, offering of social services, and emotional speeches. More strategically, these political movements that have been in a cold war since 2005 will be expedient alliances again in the next entitlement, repeating the same scenario of the previous elections and trying to marginalize other political actors.  But not surprisingly, the Lebanese voters will vote again for them and will salute the new-old alliances. Why? Because the sectarian emotional speeches still influence them, because the culture of political bribes has a longtime importance in our society, and because Lebanese people still proudly prefer the sectarian community’s interests over the country’s interests. Additionally, it would not be an exaggeration to say these blind followers of sectarian leadership have zero actual political and national awareness.  


What are the challenges for new political entrants?

It has become more than clear that there is a real problem in the system and the political identity of the country which makes voting for non-sectarian candidates a sin and complicates pumping any new political blood into the political arena. There are huge challenges for new political entrants in upcoming entitlements in terms of political marketing. One of the main challenges is to overcome the skepticism among the Lebanese population toward the political issues who instead prefer to stick with clan and sect. This skepticism may lead to a resistance to change. Plus, the country’s history itself is a challenge. Many politicians (with even very good political and economic programs) have failed to gain popularity, not because they had abstract ideologies but because they were facing odds such as the manipulation of outside forces.  Also, any new political actors face financial challenges as many of them are self-funding and do not have enough budgets to face the established political movements. The power of incumbency exerts itself when it comes to who has more money; those already in power have an advantage over those seeking to enter the political system. The “political money” in Lebanon has a significant role in controlling media and purchasing hearts, minds, and most importantly votes! According to a New York Times report, $750 million was spent during the 2009 parliamentary election (in a country of two-million voters). All these challenges will undoubtedly make things harder for Lebanese political newcomers. Thus, these latter entrants should firstly strengthen their credibility through a structure of transparent communication. Secondly, they should not give big promises to the people; Lebanon has a very complicated political system, including the deep connection to the influence of other countries. It’s more than enough for now to convince people vote for their policies to solve the many problems we suffer from – health care, unemployment, education, environment, energy, weak judiciary, etc. Finally, newcomers should involve supporters in the policy formation of political and economic programs – to give a sense of political ownership to policy. 

Lebanon is a country where many politicians: spread more hate than love, place the personal interest ahead of the obligation to the country, take advantage of the public's ignorance, and refuse to recognize the legitimacy of differing points of view. In next elections, all the political actors (traditional political parties and the new generation of Lebanese politicians) are called to embrace responsibility in their campaigns. In this crucial time in our region, any irresponsible political campaign could lead to new conflicts.