The Lebanese election on the 6th of May proved how difficult it is for candidates from civil society to gain ground in a rigid political system. Yet, they still see the election results as a sign of hope. The Turban Times measured the temperature in Beirut – post-election.
BY ANNE KIRSTINE RØNN
In a square near the Interior Ministry in Beirut, hundreds of youths are voicing their anger towards violations of Lebanon’s electoral law. It is Monday afternoon, the day after the country held the parliamentary elections, which, due to political instabilities, had been postponed since 2013.
The protests are triggered by the faith of Joumana Haddad, a candidate who ran in Beirut. Late evening on the election day, the preliminary counts suggested she would enter the parliament along with another candidate from her coalition.
Monday morning, however, she woke up to realise that her seat had gone to a rivalling list. According to stories shared by activists and journalists, election monitors were asked to step out of the counting office with the excuse that the IT counting system went down. When they returned to the room, the votes had been reassessed and the results changed to Joumana’s disfavour.
The coalition, which Joumana represents, is called Kullouna Watani (“We Are The Nation”). It is composed of activists and experts from Lebanon’s civil society and finds its strongest support among the country’s secular youth. Its overall aim is to challenge the established political system in Lebanon.
By constitutional law, Lebanon’s 128 parliamentary seats are distributed between the country’s 18 sects. A Maronite Christian has to run for a Maronite Christian seat, a Shia must run for a Shia seat and so it continues.
Power sharing is the indispensable rule of the political game in the country and has been it since the independence in 1943. It was put in place to promote peace, but has at the same time produced a system where each sect is represented by a few leaders who channel spoils from the state and private businesses to their supporters.
With Kollouna Watani, Lebanon experienced the strongest electoral campaign from civil society candidates since the country’s civil war ended in 1990. The coalition had provided 66 candidates and was competing across the country.
Some supporters expected Kullouna Watani to win up to 5 seats. With Joumana Haddad’s controversial defeat, they got only one. The reaction to the results was a mixture of hope and frustration, reflected in the slogans chanted in front of the Interior Ministry. One protester is holding a sign reading “Stop being afraid of the powerful – we need change”. Others are cursing the corrupt and sectarian regime.
On the hopeful side, Kullouna Watani’s journey in the 2018 election shows that civil society’s resistance to the sectarian system is growing steadily. “We created an opposition”, an activist told me, hours after the lukewarm results were revealed. On the frustrating side, the election demonstrated once again the amount of power by which the sectarian resists challenges to their leadership.
A dwarf against a giant
The week before the election, I found myself on a rooftop at a nerve centre of Beirut’s nightlife, where candidates from Kullouna Watani in Beirut were holding an electoral kickoff party. DJs were taking shifts at the soundboard. Young people discussing politics over gin-tonics, candidates dancing with volunteers and holding optimistic speeches in which they called on everyone to invest all their energy in a last week’s crucial sprint before the election day. The atmosphere was euphoric.
The following afternoon, local newspapers showed pictures of another celebration taking place about 80 km south of Beirut. Thousands of people had gathered in the heart of the city, dressed in green, waving a forest of flags with the logo of Amal Movement – the second largest Shia party next after Hezbollah. The contrast between the rooftop party and the mass rally was striking. It illustrated the inevitable result of the elections; that the power would remain in the hands of the mass party organisations.
In fact, the allocation of many seats was already predicted. The media site Al-Monitor had already done the math days before the elections. According to them, the winners of nearly 70% of the seats had been predetermined. Most of the remaining seats would be subject to a contest between well-known political figures, fighting for the leadership of their own religious group. Only in a few districts would Kollouna Watani have a chance.
Passively disgusting the system
I have often asked the question why people are not more keen on alternatives. After all, Lebanon is in the depressing end of the corruption index. Transparency International ranks them number 143 of 175 countries. There are daily power cuts, lack of water and lack of jobs. The answer I get from many activists and experts is, that the people who uphold the power of the sectarian parties can be divided into two groups.
The first groups are those who love and admire their sectarian leader and see him as a protector of their social rights. They join the rallies and decorate their cars with the election posters. These people are very visible in the streets during election times. However, in reality they are the few.
The second and largest group of people who uphold the system are those who dislike the sectarian leaders but passively accept their power. Some of them remain loyal because they fear of the consequences of criticising their leaders. Good contacts to political leadership also give better access to scholarships, medical care and jobs.
A young activist told me how his aunt had been offered to get her flight ticket and hospital bills payed, if she went to Lebanon to vote. I have heard of many similar stories.
Even though the new electoral law, which was introduced at the elections, guarantees secret voting, the social control at polling stations makes it hard to hide that you have voted against the established parties. Particularly in smaller areas, where everyone knows everyone, friends, family members or candidates often ask who you voted for. I have heard several stories of people who support Kullouna Watani but do not dare to cast their votes because of this social pressure.
Others are passive, because they simply have lost the hope of alternatives for the country. “They’re all the same”, I have heard from taxi drivers as well as university students. There is an overwhelming anger about the mounting corruption. Yet, for many, this anger translates into a complete rejection of anything political. Even Lebanese celebrities have encouraged a boycott of the elections. The turnout in Sunday’s election shows the scope of this disillusion. Only 49% casted their ballot. This is 6% point less than the last general election in 2009.
So what is the success story?
The stories above tells more about powerlessness than hope. Reading it, it may seem paradoxical and naive that the activists from Lebanon’s civil society believe they have real chances of influence in the future. But they do.
Despite winning only one seat, Kullouna Watani still remains a symbol of positive change among most activists I have spoken to. To understand why, one has to look back at the evolvement of the civil society movement against sectarianism in Lebanon.
The evolvement began to take speed in 2010, where protesters took the streets of Beirut to call for a secular state, civil marriage and the fall of the sectarian system. The most decisive moment was in 2015, where a waste management crisis led an estimated hundred thousand people to protests against the sectarian leaders. Kullouna Watani translated this momentum into a country-wide campaign.
And not only this. Kullouna Watani created an unprecedented unity among the civil society. The groups in Lebanon which seek to challenge the sectarian system share little common ideological ground. Some are communists. Others are neo-liberals. Some want a full overthrow of the sectarian system and hope for a revolution one day. Others want to make small stepwise political gains.
In previous demonstrations and political campaigns, they have had large, often destructive disagreements among themselves. The fact that it was possible to run under one banner is for many activists no less than a miracle.
The views expressed in this entry are the writer’s only and do not necessarily represent those of The Turban Times.