Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Ministerial rotations and effective government in Lebanon

Possible solutions to Lebanon’s multiple crises are well known. But as this column explains, while the necessary technical approaches and expertise are readily available, political elites continue to face incentives to undermine state authority and appropriate institutional capacities for individual gains. New evidence indicates that rotations of ministries among political parties do not make the government any more effective.

In a nutshell

To facilitate the political action required to address Lebanon’s current crises, elites have promoted the principle of ‘rotation’ of ministerial portfolios among parties in the formation of a new government in order to ‘break the mould’ and enable reform that would have not otherwise been possible.

Analysis of a novel dataset on ‘significant’ legislation and 72 ministerial changes in nine key ministries in all governments between 2005 and 2020 makes it possible to assess whether rotations increase legislative output.

Contrary to the narrative of political elites, rotation decreases output of significant legislation. The explanation lies in ‘memory losses’ within institutions following a rotation to the strategies of political parties.

Lebanon’s many overlapping crises require immediate and decisive political action to mitigate their fallout on the population. Political responses have always been slow – not only since the government of Prime Minister Diab resigned in August 2020.

Legislative production has historically been low in Lebanon. The average number of laws passed per year between 1990 and 2009 was 80.2 compared with 186.3 for a set of European countries (Mahmalat and Curran, 2020). Sluggish legislative response to changing environments or even crises has repeatedly been identified as a core reason for many of Lebanon’s socio-economic challenges.

The formation process of a novel government has now adopted the principle of ‘rotation’, aiming to change the party affiliations of ministers holding key ministries in order to ‘break the mould’ and speed up reform.

The argument goes as follows. Over time, several government institutions have become deeply entrenched with political elites. Their bureaucracies have become ‘bastions of privilege’ to elites of political parties (Leenders, 2021), which abuse their political power for political patronage by, for example, allotting employment to core supporters (Diwan and Haidar, 2020; Salloukh, 2019) or appropriating procurement contracts for connected firms (Atallah et al, 2020; Atallah et al, 2021).

These long-standing allegiances are assumed to have reduced the incentives for politicians, parties, and bureaucrats to change the status quo since they risk losing profits from such rent-seeking activities. Changing the affiliation of a minister is therefore supposed to ‘break the mould’ and foster novel formation of interests within and across ministries that enable reforms that would not have otherwise been possible.

But can rotation facilitate reform? Existing research finds evidence and explanation both in favour and contradicting this hypothesis. Researchers, however, have largely focused on established democracies with strong bureaucracies, making their results not immediately transferable to countries like Lebanon. Moreover, existing work is largely theoretical, rather than practical, as comparable datasets for ministerial productivity were missing. Data on ministerial output in developing countries are scarce, and Lebanon is no exception to that.

We have tested this hypothesis based on a novel dataset of legislative activity that allows us, for the first time, to establish comparable measures of ministerial legislative productivity in a developing country (Mahmalat, 2020). The details of the model and the data can be found in a working paper available on the LCPS website. And by means of spoiling the key result, we answer this question with a resounding ‘no’.

Contrary to the narrative propagated by political elites, rotation of ministries does not increase ministerial productivity. We investigated the number of ‘significant’ legislations passed by nine key ministries in all governments between 2005 and 2020, which includes 72 ministerial changes.

We found that rotation decreases output of significant legislation, a result that is robust when controlling for the individual effects of governments, ministries, and their budgets. But the affiliation to political parties appears to matter, pointing to differences in the way political parties approach legislative production.

Moreover, our results show that incoming ministers have even less output than the average ministry after rotations when they take over a portfolio that has been held by another party for more than one term before.

These results provide important clues about why rotations affect legislative activity.

First, institutions experience ‘memory losses’ following a rotation in the form of staff either leaving or obstructing the work of ministers by withholding information in order to prevent incoming administrations from reaping the benefits of previous efforts. These memory losses appear to depend on the extent to which outgoing political parties were willing and able to penetrate institutions with supporters over time by using public employment as a patronage tool.

Second, incoming ministers face challenges to understand who to trust in a new institutional environment. As allegiances of civil servants to elites of political parties can trump those to administrative superiors, incoming ministers tend to slow down work until they fully understand which civil servants and contractors to trust in that they facilitate their work and priorities.

These findings cannot speak in favour of parties maintaining a grip on particular ministries. The opposite holds true. Rotation cannot substitute for the formation of a competent government independent of party elites. Our results show that maintaining grip over a ministry can decrease its capacities in various ways, in particular as clientelist networks affect the accountability of civil servants.

In order to improve ministerial productivity, reforms are needed to increase transparency, such as by digitizing work processes, accountability, such as by strengthening merit-based criteria for performance evaluations and promotions, and meritocracy, such as by curbing the opportunities for parties for ad hoc hires that circumvent the Civil Service Board.

Possible solutions to Lebanon’s current multiple crises are well known. The challenges are less one of technicalities, but of politics. Both the necessary technical approaches and expertise are readily available, yet political elites continue to face incentives to undermine state authority and appropriate institutional capacities for individual gains.

Blaming ministerial affiliations for sluggish political responses is simply wrong. Rather, a government independent of the destructive influence of political parties and their elites, with a mandate for extraordinary legislative powers in certain policy areas and for a limited but predictable period of time, would be more promising. As long as established power structures remain intact in that ministers and their bureaucracies depend on party elites, no rotation of ministries is going to ‘break the mould’.

The full working paper can be found on the webpage of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. The authors wish to thank Sami Atallah, Matt Loftis and Paul Makdissi for valuable comments and feedback.


Further reading

Atallah, Sami, Ishac Diwan, Jamal Haidar and Wassim Maktabi (2020) ‘Public Resource Allocation in Lebanon: How Uncompetitive Is CDR’s Procurement Process?’, Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

Atallah, Sami, Mounir Mahmalat and Wassim Maktabi (2021) ‘Public Infrastructure Procurement in Post-Conflict Power Sharing Arrangements: Evidence from Lebanon’s Council for Development and Reconstruction’, Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (forthcoming).

Diwan, Ishac, and Jamal Ibrahim Haidar (2020) ‘Do Political Connections Reduce Job Creation? Evidence from Lebanon’, Journal of Development Studies 31: 1-24.

Leenders, Reinoud (2012) Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State-Building in Postwar Lebanon, Cornell University Press.

Mahmalat, Mounir (2020) ‘Policymaking in Data Poor Countries – Measuring the Lebanese Political Agenda in a New Data Set’, International Development Planning Review 42(4): 407-30.

Mahmalat, Mounir and Declan Curran (2020) ‘Fractionalization and Reform: A Framework of Political Collaboration on Reform with Application to Lebanon’, Economics of Governance 21(2): 187-214.

Mahmalat, Mounir, and Sami Zoughaib (2021) ‘Breaking the Mold? Why Ministerial Rotations Cannot Make Up for an Independent Government in Lebanon’, Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

Salloukh, Bassel. F. (2019) ‘Taif and the Lebanese State: The Political Economy of a Very Sectarian Public Sector’, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 25(1): 43-60.

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