Lebanon’s civil society challenges traditional parties in upcoming vote

The National Coalition’s candidates include men and women from different backgrounds, age groups and religious sects.
Sunday 11/03/2018
Young members of the new Sabaa party are seen in front of the American University in Beirut.(Sabaa party)
Fostering change. Young members of the new Sabaa party are seen in front of the American University in Beirut. (Sabaa party)

BEIRUT - Rampant corruption, successive dysfunctional governments, poor economic conditions and rising unemployment, among other problems, constitute the backdrop against which Lebanon’s first general elections in nearly a decade are to take place.

A new election law introduces aspects of proportional representation for the first time in Lebanon, offering an opportunity for breakthroughs in different constituencies by political alternatives to traditional parties.

A new dynamic initiated by the law contributed to the rise of new political alliances by “civil society actors” to participate in the May 6 elections.

“They (civil society groups) have a chance to breakthrough in all electoral constituencies, especially in the big ones like Beirut, Mount Lebanon and even the (Hezbollah-dominated) south and Baalbek-Hermel district,” said political analyst Amine Kammourieh.

“They can actually grab five or six seats on the sole condition that they compete as a unified front and agree on a unified electoral list with the strongest candidates.”

However, the challenges are big when it comes to defying a long-established, sectarian-driven political establishment in a country with a sectarian-based political system.

“Coming up with a unified programme or political agenda is a challenge in itself,” said Kammourieh. “They might agree on developmental, economic or social issues, such as combating corruption and unemployment, but when it comes to political matters you might have some who could feel closer to the political agenda of one pole or another. Definitely, the existing political divisions in the country can reflect on the political directives and preferences of the various civil society groups.”

Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament is divided equally between Christians and Muslims. The current chamber extended its mandate in 2013, 2015 and 2017, citing security and technical concerns.

The National Coalition, an alliance of 11 civil society groups led by the new Sabaa (“Seven” in Arabic because it has the shape of a victory sign) party, expects to compete with complete lists in electorates across the country.

“We are seeking to cooperate with all active civil society groups that have the ambition to foster change in the country to run with comprehensive and unified lists,” said Ribal Zouein, the coalition’s election campaign manager and member of the Sabaa Executive Committee.

The National Coalition’s candidates include both men and women and come from different backgrounds, age groups and religious sects.

“They represent the average citizen and the Lebanese social fabric in general. Our aim is to create a new political class that is reflective of the people close to them and (that shares) their problems and grievances,” Zouein said.

“It is not acceptable that the political power remains the monopoly of a certain class with money and power. Our candidates don’t have big financial means but they are active and seek achievements. You will see a new type of candidates who are totally different from the traditional hopefuls that we are used to seeing in the electoral race.”

The coalition includes leading civil society groups such as the “You Stink” movement, Li Baladi (“For My Country”), Badna Nhasib (“We Want Accountability”) and the Lebanese Civil Gathering, among others. Members of the groups were mostly active in anti-government protests in the summer of 2015, which were triggered by the garbage crisis and the government’s inability to agree on solutions to the country’s chronic waste management problem.

Zouein said that while not all groups in the coalition share the same political orientations, they have a common political basis upon which they can build their joint electoral programme.

“Each group might have some distinct programmes or different ways of doing things but they are unified in substance and adhere to common principles such as safeguarding national sovereignty, building a strong state, transparency, non-sectarianism and abiding by the constitution,” he said.

Though the electoral mood is uncertain, civil society groups are hopeful of reaching parliament. “People are listening to us because they want to see some change. They are simply sick and disgusted with the ruling political class that has achieved nothing over decades,” said Mark Daou, a member of the campaign Hada Minna (“One of Us”) and candidate for the Druze seat in Aley district.

“We are trying to have complete lists in Aley and the Chouf electorates by joining hands with other civil society groups as well as independent candidates,” Daou said.

The major challenge for such groups remains the establishment of a unified front against traditional political parties, based on a relevant electoral programme that convinces voters to shift their political allegiances, Kammourieh said.

“The key for them is to unify their ranks. The existing political establishment will definitely attempt to weaken their efforts and prevent them from having a unified front,” he said.

The parliamentary elections are a test for the “forces of civil society” to prove their worth by fighting the battle in a proper and organised manner, Kammourieh added.