Despite being considered as one of the oldest constitutional democracies in the Middle East, Lebanon has been confronted with periodical institutional crises and civil violence. A protracted transitional period towards democracy has threatened the autonomy of deeply fragmented sectarian groups, and has instigated a polarizing struggle over nationhood. Fearing the degradation of their power to a majoritarian order, sectarian leaders have resorted to various mobilization strategies to obstruct the emergence of a unifying national identity and democratic state. Consequently, a chronically weak state has emerged, divided along antagonistic sectarian loyalties with power shared according to sectarian consociationalism. In order to reveal the tenets of sectarian populism in Lebanon and their impacts on nation-building, the state and democratic transition, a nationwide opinion survey was conducted by the Lebanese American University (LAU), Beirut, during January of 2011 with a random sample of 586 Lebanese respondents divided along sectarian affiliation. The survey examined differential populist mobilization among major sectarian groups and revealed potential explanatory variables. The results shed light on the formation of populism in a divided society and the challenges it poses for democratic transitions in Lebanon and perhaps in transitional Middle Eastern states.

Populism and democracy

The impact of populism on democracy has been an extensively debated topic in the literature. At face value, both populism and democracy share a central theme that the state must be founded on the power of the people. Yet, fundamental to populism is the concept of the ‘people’ going against the existing power structure (Arditi 2005, Canovan 1999, Lukacs 2005). In the liberal tradition, the ‘people’ are politically heterogeneous and tolerant of dissent in contrast to populism’s notion of homogeneity and communal solidarity. This relates to the analysis of Ernesto Laclau who stresses this antagonistic notion between populism and democracy (Reyes 2005, p. 105). For populists, there is always resentment towards ‘an elite’, whether real or perceived, which is seen to exclude the masses from the political processes (Arditi 2005, p. 76).

Several key aspects of populism have left their imprint on different populist movements (Table 1). Historically, many characteristics of populism have originated from nationalist ideologies. However, depending on the social, cultural and ideological context, certain characteristics may have emerged as a dominant orientation of a populist movement (Howarth 2005, p. 205, Roberts 2000, p. 1). Common to populists are their tendencies towards isolationism so as to maintain close ranks among their adherents as well as to differentiate themselves from the outsiders, those typically perceived as ‘elites’ or ‘foreigners’. Within Western democratic countries, populist movements have generally detested the ‘elitist’ values of liberal individualism, cosmopolitanism, and internationalism in favour of communalism and nationalism (Canovan 1999, p. 4).

Table 1.

Characteristics of populist movements

Antagonism against the status quo

Anti-elitist views

Communal orientation

Emphasis on homogeneity of the group

Isolationist and exclusionary – a clear divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’

Charismatic authoritarian leader

Crowd action as a source of power

Discourse ruling out compromise – no recognition or demonization of opposition

Use of moral judgement as a source of authority

Forced dependence on the leader through lack of true empowerment of the people

Political inactivity outside the election period or other transitional phase

Lack of trust in institutionalism

Calls for fundamental reform

Read full text here Democratic transition and sectarian populism the case of Lebanon





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