Lebanese elections will not change much of the landscape

The lack of political change will not be the only source of disappointment.
Sunday 29/04/2018
Electoral billboards for the May parliamentary elections in Lebanon by the largely Shia Amal movement with the tagline reading in Arabic “Your vote is a hope (Amal) for the borders.” (AFP)
Form over substance. Electoral billboards for the May parliamentary elections in Lebanon by the largely Shia Amal movement. (AFP)

The Lebanese will go to the polls May 6 to elect a new parliament. Although there is little hope the results will fundamentally change the country’s political landscape, the fact that the elections are taking place has generated much excitement.

The current parliament was elected in 2009 for a 4-year term. Its duration was extended twice due to turbulent circumstances in the country that made having elections a security risk.

That, however, is not the only reason for the excitement. The coming elections will take place under a new electoral law that embraces proportional representation instead of one in which the winner takes all.

The new law initially gave hope to those who sought change. Such hopes, though, were dashed when it became apparent that the new law would allow change only in form.

A few faces may change but the coming parliament will be dominated by the same five or six sectarian blocs. The new government will also remain a mini-parliament composed of representatives of the same blocs that dominate the parliament.

The lack of political change will not be the only source of disappointment. The role of the new parliamentarians will not change. Instead of acting as legislators and as watchdogs over the executive branch, members of the new parliament will play the role of notables — “ayan,” which is a class of dignitaries with access to the machinery of state who act as intermediaries between the population and the government. Their popular designation is “service providers.”

The Lebanese inherited the system of ayan from the Ottoman era. While its role diminished in other former Ottoman areas, in Lebanon the system flourished under the sectarian regime that sways the country’s political culture, especially since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

The result was that the political campaigns that accompany parliamentary elections lack meaningful reference to serious issues that affect the lives of the Lebanese. No mention of educational policy, for example, and almost a total disregard for such issues as health care, housing and financial policies that directly affect the daily lives of the population.

Fighting corruption has been an issue that every candidate is addressing in the campaign but only in the most ambiguous terms. “We will work hard to end corruption and to bring corrupt officials to justice,” pledged one candidate at a recent political rally. However, he spelt out no programme for how he plans to carry out such a mission. The same can be said about the other 750 candidates competing for the 128 seats of parliament.

Another issue that attracted wide public attention is the housing lease law. The law was passed two years ago and continues to be controversial. Many candidates have assailed the law but without offering alternatives.

On the other hand, Hezbollah is waging its campaign focusing on the fight against Israel. Its propaganda apparatus highlights the party’s efforts to liberate southern Lebanon and on its war in 2006.

Such focus has made Hezbollah a single-issue party and it has backfired at least in one constituency: Baalbek.

Traditionally a Hezbollah stronghold, the Iran-backed party is facing a serious challenge from competing Shia groups that accuse the party of failing to promote the interests of the region.

Regardless of the intensity of the campaign, few say the anticipated parliamentary election will bring needed new blood into the Lebanese political system.