Change Around the Corner ahead of Elections in Lebanon
"Rien ne va plus" - nothing works! For the first time in nine years, candidates for Parliamentary elections submitted their final lists yesterday. But this year's date, May 6th, is a special one. For the first time since 2009, hundreds of thousands of first time voters cast their votes in the ballot box. With a new electoral law at hand that allows for new candidates to garer votes for parliament, change seems to be just around the corner in Lebanon. What does this mean for the course of the elections, especially at the backdrop of a politicized and traditionally polarized electorate?
May 6th, 2018. The date is finally set. Lebanon will hold Parliamentary elections for the first time in 9 years. 9 years of domestic and regional fluctuations left the country looking very different than it was the last time the Lebanese citizens voted. 9 years of state paralysis finally come to an end. So what has changed since 2009 and where is the country headed to?
A Look at Recent History
The Lebanese government is a parliamentary democracy with 128 seats divided by confession. Significant sectarian divisions hinder the overall work of the parliament due to clientelistic networks, a lack of transparency and accountability as well party alignment with external regional powers. By nature, the Lebanese government entrusts parliament with a responsibility to sustain the whole political system, making elections a key milestone in Lebanon’s political, social and economic landscape. Since 2009, much has changed both in Lebanon and regionally. 2011 marked the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring, which triggered major upheaval in several neighboring countries. 2011 is also the year that the Syrian war started, before turning into the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time and a continuing cause of suffering for millions who have been displaced as a result. Both waves of conflict had a major impact on Lebanon; from the massive influx of Syrian refugees, to the decline in economic growth and deterioration of the security situation, Lebanon continues to be subject to grave repercussions.
Additionally, Parliamentary elections were postponed twice, in 2013 and in 2014, with politicians citing “security reasons” and a lack of consensus over the electoral law in those two years respectively. The extension of parliament’s mandate on those two occasions left citizens with a great deal of disappointment and apathy towards any form of social or political change. It left a whole generation, from 21 to 29 years of age, disenfranchised from political life and not wanting anything to do with politics. If politicians themselves stripped people of their political and civil right to vote, why should most people, particularly youth, still care to make a change?
As for the traditional divide between the two major political blocs in parliament which emerged in 2005 stands still in the Lebanese political game, it remains somewhat vague whether the same political and strategic interests unite the individual parties within each coalition. The March 14th alliance, which gathered around similar interests against the Syrian regime, includes (among others) Future Movement headed by now Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the conservative Kataeb Party and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), while the March 8th alliance, known to be primarily pro-Assad, is comprised of Hezbollah, Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by the current President Michel Aoun, Amal Movement headed by the speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
Hope in the New Law
This year’s date for elections is however a reason to be optimistic. After the election of former army commander President Michel Aoun in October 2016 following the longest Presidential void in Lebanon’s history, and the passing of the country’s first ever proportional electoral law in June 2017, Lebanon is now at a critical standpoint.
Two major elements in the new electoral law provide the Lebanese population with a sense of hope. The first and most notable one is the introduction of a fully proportional law that divides the county into 15 districts. Lebanese Parliamentary elections always relied on a majoritarian law, a “winner-takes-all” framework that favored the already popular politicians and strengthened their presence among their constituencies. The proportional law now allows for a more representative and inclusive democratic procedure to take place, by giving a chance to many new political actors whose votes would not amount to much in the previous electoral system, especially in large regions. The second new component of this law is the ability for expatriates to vote from outside Lebanon. In a country where more citizens live abroad than at home, it is indeed an obvious novelty of this law. Given the fact that many residents left the country for socioeconomic reasons after the Civil War, and continue to travel to the Gulf and neighboring countries to find jobs, it is only fair to recognize their right to vote.
Thirdly, and perhaps not a direct outcome of the new law but certainly impacted by it, there is an unprecedented rise in independent, non-sectarian candidates running for this year’s elections. In light of the recent rise in civil society actors over the last three years, this new law allowed, as we witnessed this March, for a large number of civil-minded or independent candidates to run for Parliament. Now referred to as “civil society candidates,” new faces began to garner support away from the mainstream political realm, reaching out to activists and young first time voters to gain momentum and build engagement particularly using social media platforms. Triggered by the waste management crisis in 2015 which left piles of garbage by every corner in every major city in the country, new activists have managed to institutionalize their already active roles in the non-governmental sector, both on the ground in major protest movements calling for political change, as well as in local authorities through municipalities as seen in the 2016 Beirut municipal elections. Beirut Madinati, meaning “Beirut my city”, emerged in 2016 as the first independent list of activists and technocrats who ran for municipal elections and gained surprisingly high support throughout the country, establishing a new political precedent for Lebanon in the face of both March 8 and March 14 blocs. The rise of new actors is indicative of a renewed sense of commitment to Lebanon’s prosperity.
Current Status Quo
From 702 candidates running in 2009, we now had 976 individuals submitting their candidacies in 2018 (the highest number ever recorded), 111 of which are female candidates, also a record number, as shown in the figures below.
With a new sense of political participation and a law that gives chances to never-before seen candidates, there are still major difficulties that hinder this election round from being a total walk in the park. The upcoming elections seem to trigger more fights among civil society actors than between them, and the ruling class. Many chose to withdraw their candidacy after failing to reach consensus over forming alliances and joining coalitions. Tahalof Watani, or “my country alliance”, is the umbrella civil society coalition that gathers numerous individual campaigns running in different districts in Lebanon. To this day, it is still argued whether Watani’s national platform unities the different electoral agendas, and whether or not all civil society backed lists are part of this national coalition and if not, exactly why not. This has discouraged many activists who were actively looking for candidates to support. If independent candidates fall into the trap of the proportional representation and end up “stealing” votes from each other by dividing their votes within the same district, it can only mean harm to everyone involved in this coalition. Furthermore, instigating real change in the Lebanese political sphere cannot, and should not, comprise of solely relying on social media “likes” and “shares” to garner support. The only way to win against the established political sphere is to actively play a role, by speaking to the electorate, understanding their fears and hopes for the country and seeking to build political and organizational legitimacy. Failure to do so will only render these independent candidates – candidates.
Where do we stand today?
In light of regional powers waiting to intervene in Lebanon at any chance they get, the upcoming election results are crucial for the country. In the capital Beirut for instance, Prime Minister Hariri’s longstanding presence seems to remain secure in some districts, and seriously challenged in others. In a media statement this weekend, Hariri described this political battle in Beirut as a battle for those fighting for the city’s identity. He believes that “Any voter that remains at home on May 6 is a vote for Hezbollah and no one else.” He also encourages Beirutis to vote for his party by adding “You, the people of Beirut, from all sects, will not allow Hezbollah to put its hands on Beirut through the ballot box.” The Prime Minister’ statement echoes many local and regional worries that consider Hezbollah’s arms in Lebanon a threat to national security. How many of Future Movement’s Members of Parliament end up maintaining their seats is yet to be determined.
While the elections do provide an immense opportunity to elect new representatives, they have not proven to make politics in Lebanon as free and fair as many had hoped. Recent polls indicate a high level of disillusionment among the youth, and a major focus on basic human needs such as health care and education, rather than complex political ideologies.
128Lebanon.com, a new website initiated by a political blogger and supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom Lebanon and Syria, complies various opinion polls ahead of the elections and analyzes major trends – giving citizens a glimpse of political patterns over the next 40 days. It also provides the international community with a rare opportunity to read background information and follow up on elections in the English language, catering for a larger and more diverse target audience. Initiatives like this one, and a new mobile application called Elections2018, provide hope in that people will make informed decisions in the upcoming elections, rather than blindly support whoever they are called to support by their families, sects, or communities.
Freedom of choice remains at the heart of electoral behavior, and we have yet to witness a major political battle among those competent enough to rule the country. The question is, whether the battle will take place inside government institutions, or outside of it?
Dirk Kunze, Head of Office Lebanon and Syria.
Poliana Geha, Project Manager Lebanon and Syria.
Phillip Müller, Intern Lebanon and Syria.