Lessons from Lebanon’s municipal elections

Sunday 05/06/2016

The final round of Lebanon’s municipal elections, which took place in North Lebanon governorate, marked the end of a month of elections in a country that has been unable to elect a president for more than two years and that has not had parliamen­tary elections since 2009.

The elections, which took place over four rounds starting May 8th, determined the face of Lebanon’s municipal councils for the next six years and contain important indi­cations regarding the new political reality in the country.

The last round of municipal elections was full of surprises, par­ticularly the victory of the Tripoli’s Choice list, which was backed by former Justice minister Ashraf Rifi. The result indicated Rifi is an emerging force in Lebanese politics, particularly among the country’s Sunni community.

Tripoli’s Choice defeated an electoral list endorsed by senior political figures, including former prime ministers Saad Hariri and Najib Mikati.

Rifi’s success comes amid a po­litical row between him and Hariri, the leader of the Future Move­ment. Rifi resigned his cabinet post after former minister Michel Samaha — convicted of smug­gling explosives into Lebanon and planning attacks — was granted bail from prison after serving less than one year of a four-and-a-half-year sentence. Hariri endorsed Samaha’s bail. Rifi also strongly criticised Hariri’s endorsement of Suleiman Frangieh for president.

The municipal elections were the first chance to see the reper­cussions of the Christian alliance between Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and Michel Aoun’s Free Pa­triotic Movement, which purports to represent 85% of Lebanon’s Christians. However, the Christian coalition was unable to defeat an electoral list backed by Telecom­munications Minister Boutros Harb in Tannourine and an electoral list backed by Future Movement MP Hadi Hbeish and former Kataeb party MP Mikhail al-Daher in Qou­baiyat.

The results of the elections con­firm Lebanon’s ability to immunise itself from the worst of the Syrian conflict. The municipal elections took place without a hitch, even in areas adjacent to the Syrian border. Observers say there is no real security or logistical justification for postponing vital parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.

The alliance between Lebanon’s two largest Christian parties, Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, is important to note. Until recently, Geagea and Aoun had been rivals for Lebanon’s presidential seat. Some political observers have yet to be convinced about the long-term future of their political alliance, saying it would fall apart should Frangieh decide to forgo his presidential bid.

The fourth round of elections also confirmed the changing mood among Lebanon’s Sunnis and represents a step back for the Hariri-led Future Movement. This is something that the Future Move­ment itself recognised, explaining its strange alliance with Mikati, whom it accused of treason after he became prime minister follow­ing what it said was a Hezbollah “coup” over Hariri’s own govern­ment in 2011. However, even this bitter alliance was not enough to overcome Rifi’s popularity.

The most important revelation is the rise of a new grass-roots power that threatens traditional politics and the dominance of Lebanon’s major parties. This power, as represented by various electoral lists across Lebanon that sought to take on more traditional par­ties, is calling for the introduction of a proportional representation electoral system that would reduce the influence of Lebanon’s major parties.