Party Behavior in Ethnically-Divided Societies: A Case of Ethnic Underbidding in 1960s Lebanon

Sima Ghaddar, University of California Los Angeles

A dominant body of scholarship on ethnic politics argues that divisions between political parties that represent the same ethnic group unleashes a "process of ethnic outbidding." Party elites take on exclusionary and radicalizing policy positions to retain their base of support among their ethnic group. However, this article establishes that such divisions sometimes play a role in counteracting outbidding. Competition between parties that represent the same ethnic constituency can initiate a sustainable process of ethnic underbidding. Using a case of intra-ethnic competition among three Christian political parties in early 1960s Lebanon, this paper traces the causal pathway that led one key Christian political party, Al-Kataeb, to assume a leading and moderating role during that time. Al-Kataeb, who began as a paramilitary youth movement in 1936, and then became one of the most powerful and radical militias during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), paradoxically played a significant role in advancing programmatic and accommodative policies in the 1960s. How can we explain such shifts? Under what conditions can we expect to see underbidding instead of outbidding? A more fluid understanding of ethnic party behavior and their constituencies allows us to account for times when programmatic policy demands become central to political discourse. As cross-cutting cleavages gain salience, dominant political parties intensify political competition by resorting to programmatic appeals. Dominant ethnic elites thus initiate a "process of ethnic underbidding" that reduces ethnic tension, and opens up a space for deal-making in government, and policies that attend to marginalized ethnic groups. I argue that popular mobilization by party constituencies are key to shaping the rhetoric and strategies of ethnic political parties. In addition, building on recent studies on the internal dynamics of ethnic political parties, I argue that internal struggles within a dominant party can fortify key moderate members into government.

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 Presented in Session 217. Dynamics of Political Conflict in Middle Eastern States