Obstacles faced by female candidates in political elections
A consolidation of the WE4L partners’ reports findings on the 2018 Lebanese elections
Written by Laudy Issa
The first parliamentary elections in Lebanon since 2009 saw a record number of female candidates running in the history of the country. While the major increase in the number of female candidates marks a step forward towards their participation in decision-making processes, several structural changes need to be fulfilled for women to be able to take on positions of power in Lebanon.
The number of women who recently ran for parliament was seven times greater than those who ran nine years ago, with the country registering 86 and 12 female candidates in 2018 and 2009 respectively, but the rise in candidates was not matched by an equally significant increase elected into office. Out of all the candidates, only six would go on to become members of parliament after receiving sufficient votes from the general public. Several Women Empowered for Leadership (WE4L) partners have studied the May 6 elections from a gender perspective, highlighting the different legal, economic, and social obstacles in the way of the effective political participation of women in Lebanon.
“When we launched our gender monitoring, we had in mind that the purpose of doing so is not only to highlight women's electoral experiences in this regard but also to later put pressure on the decision-makers, mainly political parties, to improve women political participation inside their parties by shedding light on their status throughout the whole electoral process,” said Aly Sleem, Research Coordinator at the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), a WE4L partner.
In their recent “Gender Monitoring Report of the 2018 Parliamentary Elections,” LADE stated that the new electoral law decreased the likelihood of both female and independent candidates being elected. By including a nomination fee ($5292) that is quadruple the 2009 fee for candidates, the law reinforced the position of candidates in dominant political parties and acted as an economical disadvantage for new political figures and most women, who predominantly ran as part of independent or unconventional political lists. The preferential voting system,1 which forces voters to elect one list of candidates and cast one preferential vote for one candidate on that list, also favors well-established political figures. According to LADE, 25 female candidates received less than 100 preferential votes in their respective districts. In the electoral district of Beirut 2, the “Lebnen Herzen” list’s top male candidate received over 11,000 preferential votes (9.2 percent of the total votes), as opposed to the two females on that electoral list, who received 237 (0.19 percent) and 169 (0.14 percent) votes. The effects of the preferential voting system are made clear when considering the record high number of females running, with the equally low number of preferential votes.
Several female candidates who were interviewed by the WE4L partner mentioned the need for a female quota system, sharing their personal experiences of announcing their candidacy, list formation, electoral campaigns, and election day. Despite the escalating demands by different feminist groups in the country over the past decade and the 2015 recommendations of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review to include temporary special measures that increase female participation in Lebanese politics, the electoral law did not provide a quota for women.
The high electoral spending ceiling also acted as a barrier for female candidates. According to Maharat Foundation’s “Women’s Presence in the Media – the 2018 Elections” report, During the launching event of the WE4L partner’s report, several women claimed that private media channels were charging a minimum rate of $25,000 for television coverage. In their report, the foundation emphasized that female candidates were significantly underrepresented in Lebanese media during the elections. Maharat suggested placing a spending ceiling on publicity to free up advertising spaces previously purchased by dominant candidates, subsequently bettering the chances of less advantaged candidates reaching the public.
Maharat studied six newspapers and eight different TV stations for two months leading up to election day. The foundation revealed that female candidates received 5 percent of the coverage in newspapers, 12 percent in television interviews and talk shows, and less than 4 percent in television news bulletins –as opposed to male candidates, who received 95, 88 and 96 percent coverage through those respective mediums. Additionally, appearance of female candidates as the subjects of a first story in a news bulletin occurred less than 1 percent of the time.
The ownership of private media outlets by established political parties also affects public voting by excluding independent and new candidates from coverage. According to a pre- and post-elections report by Lebanon Support, a WE4L partner that aims at enhancing civil society through creating public spaces for reflection, only 9 percent of female candidates for the 2018 elections were nominated by established political parties. Since most women did not belong to mainstream political parties, many of them did not receive media exposure. Of the six females who earned a seat in parliament, five were part of major political party lists and one was an independent, well-known television presenter. Impartial and fair coverage through better electoral media regulation could boost the general public’s confidence in women, who now occupy a mere 4.6 percent of the parliamentary seats, according to Maharat Foundation. Generating public support for female candidates, in turn, could increase the confidence of other political figures in them and their likelihood of forming lists that include them. Initially, 113 females announced their candidacy before 27 withdrew. The separate studies by Maharat and LADE revealed that women, including those who withdrew their candidacy, faced difficulties in joining electoral lists, a requirement by the new electoral law to be able to run.
Another qualitative research conducted by Lebanon Support focused on independent and female candidates when considering the electoral behaviour of Lebanese voters. The focus groups conducted by the independent organisation revealed that voters do not select their preferred electoral lists because they are convinced in voting for all those on it: voters tend to choose electoral lists that include an individual they know on a clientele basis, making it unlikely for them to believe in change through voting for new political actors or lists. According to the report by Lebanon Support, their conservative electoral behaviour could likely be driven by the need for clientele services offered by well-known political candidates and the fear of losing privileges.
Despite supporting the presence of women in politics, voters in the focus groups revealed that they only wanted to see incredibly qualified female politicians as opposed to “ordinary” ones, a sentiment that was not carried towards male politicians. The Lebanon Support report inexplicitly indicated a general culture in Lebanon that assumes men are naturally qualified for handling the responsibilities of a political position.
The studies by WE4L partners revealed the need for several interdependent structural reforms before women can assume leadership positions in Lebanon and be accepted both by the general public and within political circles as capable leaders. The electoral law disadvantages women on several fronts, with suggestions by WE4L partners in the different reports including creating an electoral law that allows candidates to run as individuals rather than as part of a list and including a quota that forces political parties to include women on their lists.
Waiving the hefty registration fee and lowering the allowed electoral campaign budgets would allow women, and new independent candidates, to gain the general exposure and visibility they are currently denied because of economic disadvantages. These changes to the electoral law must also be accompanied by changes to electoral media, which currently favour certain well-established politicians over others because of their association with different Lebanese political parties. Impartial and fair media can help alter the social perception of female candidates by the general public, with citizens recognizing the capabilities of women in leadership positions.
“We believe that more attention and chances should be given to women and this should be done by working on the elimination all social, economic, and cultural barriers that limit women from an effective political participation,” said Aly Sleem from LADE.
Laudy Issa is a multimedia journalist who graduated from the American University of Beirut as a double major in Psychology/Media and Communication. Currently freelancing as a writer and social media manager for multiple organizations, she is also one of the editors behind the independent news platform, Beirut Today. Interested in shedding light on arts and culture in Lebanon, she initiated a series of in-depth features with local musicians and is a photographer you might catch tripping over wires in local theatres or gigs.
1 The electoral voting system requires voters to select a list of candidates in their district, rather than voting for individuals. They then select one “preferential vote” from that list, and the candidates with the most preferential votes win the seats allocated to that electoral list.