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Opinion: Lebanon – Electoral Escapism From Politics | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The Lebanese are surely entitled to celebrate exercising one form of “democracy” provided to them by the municipal and mayoral elections. Of course they are, given that foreign dictates have for almost two years prevented the election of a new president; and that they have almost forgotten that their parliament was elected in 2009 for a four-year term, but unilaterally renewed its term in 2013 citing “exceptional security concerns”.

The common denominator between blocking both presidential and parliamentary elections – as the Lebanese are quite aware – is the existence of a foreign-aligned and armed ‘mini-state’ which is stronger than the Lebanese state. Although this ‘mini-state’ is functioning within Lebanese state institutions and benefits from their services, it keeps to itself what it refuses to share with the country’s constituents within those state institutions which are supposed to represent, govern and defend the sovereignty of the whole country.

Hence, in the light of absent sovereignty, prohibited democracy, collapsing services, deteriorating media and the terrorised judiciary, the municipal and mayoral elections came as a breather, whereby frustrated and disenfranchised citizens are reminded, at least, of their ability to protest and vent their anger.

The Lebanese, indeed, flocked to the polls in cities, towns and villages, first in Beirut and the provinces of Beqaa’ and Baalbeck – Hermel (both in eastern Lebanon), followed by Mount Lebanon. Today it is the turn of South Lebanon and Nabatiyeh (both in southern Lebanon), and the whole exercise should be completed with the provinces of North Lebanon and Akkar (both in northern Lebanon).

As usual, there has been a strong inclination on behalf of ordinary voters, political parties and the media, to deduce some political trends reflected by this electoral landmark; and sure enough any kind of elections – even at the level of university student councils and trade unions – gives an idea about the general ‘mood’ of the people.

However, this is never a clear and comprehensive picture like that usually provided by parliamentary elections, the reason being the context of transient ‘coalitions’ and personal preferences. In Lebanon’s municipal and mayoral elections, it would have been wrong to read too much into the voting pattern, especially in villages and small towns where clan and tribal affinities play the major part in voters’ preferences. Then, there is the size of a clan or a tribe that might have outweighed party loyalties, which has limited the political dimension to the situations below.

Firstly, the elections may have carried some test for ‘political sizes’ of various parties but only in the Christian areas; and here the results were really interesting.

Secondly, they may have given an idea about how significant the Shi’ite protest movement is against the hegemony of the Hezbollah-Amal in the Shi’i heartlands, particularly in the aftermath of Hezbollah’s military involvement in the Syrian War and its consequences.

Thirdly, they may have provided an opportunity to monitor the Sunni pulse following the return of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Lebanon, as well as the growth of ‘Islamist’ groups mainly in the Sunni countryside.

Fourthly, they assessed the vitality of Lebanon’s civil society, which may or may not reflect its disappointment with the country’s political elite, and its ability of pushing forward secular issues and demand across sectarian and party barriers.

In the Christian camp the ‘test’ deserved its name after the Aounist ‘Free Patriotic Movement’ and its former bitter foe ‘The Lebanese Forces’ entered an ‘alliance’ that encouraged its partisans and supporters to claim it commands the support of more than 85% of Christians.

What happened, however, was that the ‘alliance’ stood firm in some areas and disappeared in others because clan and local loyalties proved stronger than political ‘deals’ cut over the local village and town fabrics. Furthermore, even when this Christian ‘grand alliance’ materialised – as was the case in the city of Zahle (eastern Lebanon) and some towns in Mount Lebanon like Deir Al-Qamar – the difference in votes cast was either quite small or allowed opposing candidates to manage to break through the ‘alliance’ list and win seats.

Moreover, the Lebanese Kataeb Party (i.e. the Phalanges), which the Aounist – Lebanese Forces ‘alliance’ had thought to be all but moribund, scored a few impressive results and reclaimed its stature in several areas, and many local ‘traditional leaderships’ managed to maintain solid influence in its strongholds. Thus, the elections proved beyond doubt that there was no Christian political ‘monopoly’, a fact that undermines any attempt to treat such a test as if it was a ‘referendum’ on national political programmes or personal hallows.

As for the Shi’i scene, at least in northeast Lebanon, the protest movement proved strong in the city of Baalbeck, the largest Shi’ite city, which gave the list of independents and clan representatives running against the Hezbollah-Amal coalition list more than 40% of the votes despite the coalition’s monopoly of arms in defence of its ‘patriotism’, ‘resistance’ and ‘development’!

On the other hand, while some may say that the Shi’ite ‘social’ realities in ‘tribal’ northeast Lebanon differ from those of ‘rural-urban’ south Lebanon – implying that the coalitions’ sway would be stronger – neither Hezbollah nor Amal would benefit from interfering in village rivalries, which may antagonize their influence in their home ground.

Meanwhile, in the Sunni ‘test’, the Future Movement has thus far emerged victorious in populous mixed battlegrounds led by the capital Beirut, despite relatively good showing for ‘Islamist’ and party groups; however, a more important test would come in the southern city of Sidon, in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, and the neighbouring rural ‘Sunni reservoir’ of northern Lebanon.

Last but not least, as the Druze leaderships left these elections in their proper local and clan-based context far from high-level – noting that Druze population density is in the rural districts –, it was obvious that these elections opened the door wide for the protest votes of Lebanon’s civil society, which although was loud and clear, proved unable to make the breakthrough.

To conclude, I believe this electoral experiment has to be seen as a dynamic and healthy phenomenon, if analyzed properly. Lebanon’s status quo is far from normal; with its political decision hijacked, and its sovereignty diminished – if not made absent – by the power of sectarian arms controlled and directed from abroad, and almost half of its elites and enlightened intelligentsia are either emigrant or in self-exile, and whereby political parties may master sectarian and popular agitation and mobilisation nationally but have proven unable still to turn the Lebanese voter into a Lebanese citizen.