The politicians who cried ‘wolf’ in Lebanon
With the much-anticipated May 6 parliamentary elections fast approaching, Lebanon's public space has been transformed into an elaborate political circus with all of the country’s factions putting on a show of populist oration to muster votes.
Faced with a new proportional electoral law, with locked ballots and one preferential voting option, all parties concerned have proven themselves obsessed and cautious over how to at least maintain their presence in Lebanon’s parliament.
It has never been particularly strange or uncommon for politicians to resort to populism to hide or sidestep their shortfalls. However, within the Lebanese context, the rhetoric on mainstream electoral platforms lacks any plans for genuine socio-economic development. Instead, the speeches imbue a regular and orderly vote with all the drama of a “battle for existence,” whatever that might mean.
This isn’t to say the ruling political factions haven’t published elaborate manifestos that promise economic salvation as well as simple utilities; outrageous claims considering that the Lebanese are still hoping for 24-hour electricity, faster internet and eco-friendly waste management plans.
However, what can’t be overlooked is that much of this dramatic oratory comes from parties and people that have been in power for the last decade. As a result, much of the problems that Lebanon must deal with are ones principally of their making. Fully aware of their faults and their reluctance to make any serious changes to the current system, the ruling establishment with all its various factions resort to appealing to its supporters’ innate sense of tribalism and community.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the leader of the predominately Sunni Future Movement, has been campaigning for his electoral base to vote “for Rafik Hariri’s project and for Lebanon’s stability, economy, sovereignty and Arab identity.” To anyone unversed in Lebanese politics, Hariri’s statement might come off as essentially developmental. However, the truth is that the Sunni leader is explicitly asking people to vote against Hezbollah and its pro-Iran agenda.
Hezbollah countered Hariri’s call by asking its supporters to take a firm stand in support of “the resistance” — Hezbollah’s militia and its Iran-supplied arsenal. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah stressed the importance of gaining widespread support for Hezbollah’s and the Amal Movement’s combined list, claiming that a vote for Hezbollah would fortify the resistance’s position in parliament and, subsequently, in the cabinet.
In practical terms both Hariri and Nasrallah, by adopting this kind of rhetoric, are branding anyone who chooses to vote differently as being unworthy to be part of their community and perhaps instead better suited for social and political excommunication.
Coincidentally, for Hariri, any Sunni who casts his or her vote for any of the seven remaining lists in Beirut where he is personally running is essentially voting in favour of Iran and Syria, both accused of killing his father.
Equally, Shias who object to Hezbollah’s and Amal’s hegemony over their community are cast as collaborators and agents of the West and — more dangerously — Israel, accusations that typically come with a death sentence attached.
These scare tactics, combined with the tired old political practice of simply crying “wolf” at every opportunity, would probably work well enough if Hariri and Hezbollah didn’t already enjoy a fairly well-documented understanding, not to say an implicit alliance.
If Hariri or Nasrallah genuinely saw each other as the devil, they would revoke the Faustian pact that allows them both, along with the country’s other factions, to divide the resources of Lebanon’s failing economy between them.
A strong presidency in Lebanon?
Joining the aforementioned factions is Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which had called on its Christian constituency to vote for a strong robust presidency and for the continued existence of the so-called Christians of the East.
In theory, Aoun is a neutral observer and arbitrator within Lebanon’s political process. As such, he should be extremely vigilant in not allowing anyone, including his son-in-law and successor, Gebran Bassil, from using the presidency to gain further votes, a practice that ultimately undermines the presidency but one that continues nevertheless.
Throughout the electioneering process, Lebanon’s ruling parties have been fanning the flames of hatred within the communities they claim to serve. As they scream “wolf” to push the electorate towards the ballot box, they are creating divisions that may never heal. While many of these threats, their supporters might argue, are genuine, what is certain is that hotly contested elections are not the best means for defusing them.
The Lebanese of the future might wish to cast their votes, like the people of Iceland, for candidates endorsing innovative policies — equal pay for female employees or clean energy, for instance — instead of an imaginary wolf, which, given the current economic choices of their politicians, will have nothing left to devour other than the mistrust and division that created it.