Campaigning in Lebanon reaches final days, main issues unaddressed

The entrenched corruption of the system notwithstanding, there remains cause for hope.
Saturday 05/05/2018
Establishment figures. Two women eat breakfast under portraits of Lebanon’s assassinated former President Bashir Gemayel in Beirut’s Christian neighbourhood of Achrafieh on May 4. (AFP)
Establishment figures. Two women eat breakfast under portraits of Lebanon’s assassinated former President Bashir Gemayel in Beirut’s Christian neighbourhood of Achrafieh on May 4. (AFP)

TUNIS - Many of those campaigning in Lebanon’s elections have avoided big policy issues, preferring instead to couch appeals for votes in promises to fix systematic issues they themselves either created or ignored.

The greater choice remains unaddressed, whether to overhaul Lebanon’s failing economy and infrastructure or gamble on playing a leading role in a regional conflict that could subsume the small country.

Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, a member of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s inner circle, told the Associated Press the election was not a Sunni-Shia conflict but “a conflict between a group that believes in a state and a nation and another that has regional and Iranian leanings.”

However, rather than address central issues head-on, candidates have campaigned on domestic issues. “Divisive issues such as Hezbollah’s weapons and the controversy over its participation in regional conflicts are almost entirely absent from the electoral campaigns, indicating implicit acceptance of the party’s domestic hegemony,” wrote analyst Joseph Bahout in an article for the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

The elections, the first in nine years, puts Hariri, a Sunni who enjoys Western and Saudi support, against Iran-backed Shia Hezbollah in a proportional system that will still see the opponents work together in the 128-seat parliament.

Though the sectarian seat system is maintained under a new election law, a decades-old plurality system has been exchanged for a proportional list-based one. Voting districts have also been overhauled and reduced from 26 to 15.

That could offer new candidates, running either as independents or sharing a list with political rivals, the possibility of gaining a parliamentary toehold.

Lebanon's sectarian-based power-sharing system

Lebanon is technically a parliamentary democracy but it remains tied to a sectarian-based power-sharing system and its politics have been dogged by corruption, conspiracy and sectarian interests. Senior government positions are allocated along sectarian lines: the head of state should be a Christian; the prime minister, a Sunni Muslim; and the parliament speaker, a Shia. Parliament is divided equally between Christians and Muslims.

However, the formula is based on outdated demographic data and does not consider the approximately 200,000 Palestinian refugees, who have been denied both citizenship and a vote.

The entrenched corruption of the system notwithstanding, there remains cause for hope. A record number of independent civil society figures, many of whom played leading roles within the anti-rubbish campaign of 2015, are vying for power. They urged voters to ignore the promises of politicians whom they accuse of having wrecked the public sector and brought the state close to bankruptcy.

Independent candidate Gilbert Doumit, a candidate in Beirut for a new list, Kulna Watani, told the British newspaper the Guardian: “The country is going through serious social, economic and political challenges that will translate into disastrous consequences if the same elite runs the country, with the same mindset that it did the last 30 years.”