Never in Lebanon’s election history have the eyes and ears of citizens been saturated — some would even say jammed — with such an overwhelming quantity of colors, pictures, slogans and counter-slogans. Billboards, TV ads, YouTube clips and Facebook pages were ruthlessly employed to target the highest possible number of potential voters which, more often than not, ended up completely confused by the communication blitz. Now that the party’s over, many questions inevitably come to mind. What exactly led to this frenzy in political messaging, and to this particular type and style of communication? Was this an expression of a healthy democratic political scene or the symptom of an underlying fundamental dysfunction? What positive or negative impact did it ultimately have on Lebanese citizens in the context of the electoral process? And, most importantly, to what extent was electoral political communication reflective of the principle of accountability, which is a pillar of sound democratic practice?

It is no secret that the Lebanese political scene has been characterized lately by intensely polarized opinions, with a high proportion of citizens having already “made up their minds” concerning their vote. However, the existence of neutral or undecided voters coupled with reports that the election outcome would be fateful for Lebanon’s future and ultimately decided by a very narrow margin, kick-started an aggressive all-out campaign. Campaigns aimed to glean the crucial undecided swing votes and galvanize partisan voters, with each camp asking the citizen to “buy its products,” i.e., to vote for its candidates.

Though this analogy between a politician and a product might seem alluring at first, it is ultimately misleading. For although electoral campaigns were characterized by loud and incisive calls for action similar to the ones used to sell consumer goods, the campaigns (voluntarily or involuntarily) overlooked an essential difference between voting and shopping; shopping for a product could be a one-time purchase if you are unhappy with what you have chosen, while the act of voting could shape your life and that of your country for years. The hard-sell style that characterized pre-electoral communication resulted in the drastic downplaying of vital political content and substance which should normally translate into consistent electoral programs, clear political visions and concrete roadmaps. A glimpse at the pre-elections communication landscape indeed reveals the distressing scarcity of such elements.

Loud yet lacking

This void in ideas had a direct negative impact on all pre-electoral communication. An ancient physicist’s idiom tells us that “nature abhors a vacuum.” Unfortunately, nature does not always fill this vacuum in a good way, as the campaign has left us with the unpleasant aftertaste of a void filled by creative yet unsubstantiated slogans and counterproductive polemics. In other words, communication during the elections became an end in itself.

This does not mean, of course, that campaigns were lacking creativity, wit or humor. On the contrary, the ad professionals behind these initiatives demonstrated all these traits in sometimes amazing ways. Unfortunately, the excitement and buzz created by the creative campaigns resulted in the audience losing track of what is truly important, which is the need for consistent political content that has a strong message behind it. The slogans being plastered across Lebanon have thus become the trees that prevent us from seeing the forest.

Ad busting, which was often conducted with virtuosity by all political camps, gives another striking example of this lack of content. The “slogan wars” on billboards and on the Internet became a self fulfilling purpose, and had more similarities with a Byzantine quarrel than with a rational confrontation between ideas and programs which could fuel a healthy debate. Ironically, while the opponents were busy passing the hot potato to one another, they ultimately forgot about the “beef” of their communication and instead tried to compensate for this missing element by over-packaging their messages.

The reasons behind this anemic political substance are many. Without judging whether the political entities involved did or didn’t have any real content to deliver, one can try to explain this deficiency from a pure communication perspective. The first reason can be found in the absence of a communication vision emanating from consistent content which extends in time beyond particular events such as elections. Communicating such content and substance entails the deployment of constant and proactive communication initiatives (interactive websites, university conferences and publications) through which various stakeholders are targeted by consistent and regular messages. The strategy should also account for the existence of two-way communication channels (blogs, YouTube channels, Q&A sessions and town hall meetings) that will ensure that audiences’ concerns and ideas are heard and addressed through continuous dialogue and feedback.

Regular communication efforts would ultimately result in clearly conveying the position of the politician or party, the system of values they espouse and what their future candidates stand for. In the long term, this strategy would gradually build the party or candidate’s image and equity, and result in constant two-way liaising with stakeholders and audiences, ultimately entrenching positive perceptions while clarifying any possible misperceptions that stakeholders might have of the political group or politicians in question.

Masking the empty message

The absence of actual “beef” in their communication strategies has led political parties to entirely rely on advertising agencies in a bid to fill this strategic gap under the pressure of elections. Advertising agencies, in turn, have unleashed their creativity to successfully grab audiences’ attention. However, it is clear that this has generated scattered and ad hoc efforts that ultimately appealed to the voter’s primary reflexes — their ‘instinct’ — as opposed to their ‘mind.’ The lack of proactive and sustained communication has also forced parties to condense their ideas into the forms and channels that best met their tight time constraints, thus overly relying on catchy slogans and noisy billboards that did not express any political depth and, most importantly, did not showcase any realistic promise. Even the now famous “Sois belle et vote” campaign, which represented a much needed attempt to touch on the issue of women’s rights, was limited to a call for action that raised a prejudice and fell short of empowering Lebanese women.

This emotional and instinct-based approach to communication has obviously worked quite well, judging from the high voter turnout. Nevertheless, it remains short-sighted, as its impact is bound to be ephemeral and last only as long as the campaign itself. Moreover, this approach did not uphold a basic democratic principle underlying the concept of elections, which is the voter’s right to hold their politicians accountable for a specific program or vision. As a pillar of the democratic practice, the accountability principle should ideally be reflected in electoral political communication; it should inform citizens and empower them to hold a politician accountable based on his or her implementation of their program rather than on personal considerations, pure instincts and impulses or the politician’s ability to play on people’s insecurities and fears. By instituting a culture whereby politics is driven by programs and visions rather than tactical self-promoting considerations, short-lived alliances and even fear mongering, we would edge closer to a state-of-affairs in which representatives are held liable for their agenda and are voted-in on their ability to fulfill their set promises.

While political communication can become a precious tool in consolidating genuine democracy by promoting accountability, crude calls-for-action can have the exact opposite effect by transforming the democratic voting process into an empty shell and reducing the citizen to a mere ballot with no aspirations or rights. After all that is said and done, only when we elevate the democratic practice above the fray of political infighting and move toward a new social contract based on rights and responsibilities can we prove Oscar Wilde wrong when he said: “Democracy is the oppression of the people, by the people, for the people.”

With the June 7 election behind us, and despite its many imperfections, Lebanon should be proud of the feat it accomplished as it proved to be a role model for free elections when compared to neighboring countries. Lebanon has the potential to mature more and, as such, will remain an example to follow and an authentic and aspiring Arab democracy.

Mark Helou and Ramsay G. Najjar