Municipal elections offer painful reminder of Lebanon’s quandaries
BEIRUT - The desire for change in Lebanon has manifested itself on many occasions over a long time. However, in a country with 18 religious sects, with many political and social agendas as well as regional affiliations, the task is never easy.
The first round of Lebanon’s municipal elections, which took place in Beirut and the Baalbek-Hermel governorates in eastern Lebanon on May 8th, was another painful reminder that traditional political parties and de facto forces maintain a tight hold on the country.
Despite a crisis over rubbish collection, rampant corruption among politicians, the failure to elect a new president for two years and adopt much-needed new laws, the vote was simply a political one fuelled by sectarian fears, political rivalries and regional conflicts.
“There is no question that the political mood in Lebanon, especially the Sunni-Shia divide, played a dominant role in deciding the outcome of elections in Beirut,” said Hilal Khashan, chairman of the political studies department at the American University of Beirut. “Low voter turnout, however, showed apathy and lack of trust in politicians irrespective of their location on the divisive political spectrum.”
The Beirutis’ List, backed by Sunni leader and former prime minister Saad Hariri, won the Beirut municipal election, capturing all 24 seats in the polls. It faced a good challenge by the Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City) list, which was hastily formed to defy the political establishment and included technocrats, civil society members, artists and businessmen.
“Even though it (Beirut Madinati) lost the race, it presented itself as a potentially viable alternative to politically backed municipal lists mainly because of the low voter turnout (20%),” Khashan said.
Hariri, who expressed relief that Iran-backed Shia Hezbollah chose to sit out the Beirut municipal elections, was keen to emphasise Christian-Muslim parity and included candidates not only from Christian-allied groups — the Phalange Party and the Lebanese Forces — but also from the Hezbollah ally the Free Patriotic Movement.
Christian voters in Beirut did not honour their leaders’ alliances and, according to Khashan, mostly chose to support Beirut Madinati “in what appeared to be a genuine desire to break the shackles of political patronage”.
“In addition, it seems that Christian voters are fed up with playing a subservient political role. Christians aspire to play a leading political role reminiscent of their distinguished position during the years of the first republic,” he said.
Hezbollah was in no better position. It too faced the challenge of proving anew its “extensive” popularity and control over important areas in eastern Lebanon, considered a reservoir of fighters and supporters for the war it is fighting in Syria alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces.
The Hezbollah-backed lists won in most municipalities in the Bekaa valley but it was a close call in Baalbek, where they faced the secular Baalbek Madinati (Baalbek My City), which included local civil society activists; and in the border town of Brital against a list headed by the Tufayli family and blessed by former Hezbollah chief Sheikh Sobhi al-Tufayli, who has been a staunch critic of the militant party and its patron, Iran.
With reports indicating that 40% of Shia votes went to the Baalbek Madinati with turnout that reached 50% in Baalbek and 60% in Brital, the challenge was clear.
“If the reports are accurate, this means considerable discontent with Hezbollah over its dealing with the Shia community and its involvement in the Syria war,” said Riad Tabbarah, a political analyst and head of the Centre for Development Studies and Projects, a private research institute based in Beirut.
Khashan said Shia voters are no exception to the rule.
“The winds of change do not recognise sectarian barriers,” he said. “Many Shias are angered by Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and they tend not to accept the fact that their children are being sacrificed as expendable foot soldiers in a conflict that cannot possibly benefit any Lebanese sect.”
Discontent with political performance and deteriorating public services was an important factor in the Beirut vote, explaining the quick rise of the Beirut Madinati.
But, as noted by Tabbarah, Hariri’s list won because the Sunnis in Beirut voted heavily for it “out of fear of the Shias”.
As one voter explained: “We will not allow anyone to break Hariri in the face of Hezbollah.”
However, the result is that the delicate political-confessional balance remains in place.
“True, there are growing complaints but did the situation reach the level of changing the traditional political balances? I see no such drastic change,” Tabbarah said.
No doubt, the Lebanese people desire change but civil action has been mostly confined to individuals coming from middle-class backgrounds, Khashan explained.
“More than 60% of Lebanese are impoverished and political mobilisation is not an option for them,” he said. “They remain dependent on meagre provisions by their sectarian political patrons.”
The good thing, however, is that the seeds of change have been planted, he said. “They need to be nurtured until they mature and deliver tangible results,” Khashan concluded.
Polls for the remaining governorates are scheduled for May 15th, 22nd and 29th.