Lebanon’s elections: Independents’ day?

Who are the independents hoping to challenge Lebanon’s establishment on Sunday; what do they stand for; and can they win any seats? Al-Jumhuriya's guide to the 2018 parliamentary elections.

As Lebanon heads for its first parliamentary elections in nine years on Sunday, in one sense there seems little at stake.

The so-called ‘March 8’ versus ‘March 14’ divide that defined the last election as one between allies of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime and its opponents, respectively, is no longer of relevance today, with parties from both sides forming various alliances in districts across the country. Issues of foremost regional importance, such as Hezbollah’s arms, and its military intervention in Syria, have not been a significant subject of the electoral debate. Between the incumbent parties that have dominated politics since the end of the civil war in 1990, there now appears very little to choose indeed. With few exceptions, the blocs have scarcely even criticized their ostensible rivals at all. Rather than pledge any particular policies or lay out points from their manifestos, in their ubiquitous street posters and billboards candidates more often than not simply state their names in large type next to their faces, as though they were celebrities whose popularity—and fitness to govern—went without saying.

And yet, in one crucial respect, Sunday’s election will be unlike any other in Lebanon’s post-war history. For the first time, a new, grassroots, civil-society-led coalition of diverse independents has launched an organized and serious bid for parliament. The differences between them and the traditional incumbents are hard to miss. In a country notorious for political segregation along religious lines, they are fielding candidates of all faiths (or, in some cases, none). Where the largest establishment parties are known to answer to the foreign capitals that bankroll them, the newcomers owe no allegiance to any country but their own. As opposed to the 3% of parliamentary seats that went to women in 2009, the main independent coalition’s candidates are 30% female, and one group is running an all-women list in the northern district of Akkar. With public discontent with the status quo higher than usual ever since the (still-unresolved) waste collection crisis of 2015, many feel the time has never been riper for a new class of competent, civic-minded professionals with clean hands to wrest control from the quasi-feudal zu’ama (“strongmen”) whom they hold responsible for the country’s chronic dysfunction. As one of their candidates in Beirut, Gilbert Doumit, put it succinctly: “Their failure is our chance.”

So who exactly are these new contenders? What do they stand for? And how likely is it they can actually win any seats? These three questions are addressed in turn below.

 

Meet the candidates

The largest component of this new independent force is the Kollouna Watani (“We Are All My Nation”) Coalition, made up of twelve sub-groups fielding a total of sixty-six candidates across nine out of the country’s fifteen electoral districts. There are, in addition, at least five other notable independent groups unaffiliated with Kollouna Watani.

The Kollouna Watani Coalition member groups break down as follows:

LiBaladi (“For My Country”) – A collection of reform activists, NGO founders, academics, and white collar professionals born to a large extent out of the Beirut Madinati (“Beirut Is My City”) movement that competed in the capital’s municipal elections in 2016. All five of their candidates (Gilbert Doumit, Joumana Haddad, Yorgui Teyrouz, Laury Haytayan, and Levon Telvizian) are running in the Beirut I district.

Sabaa (“Seven”) – A newly-formed political party combining lawyers, engineers, medical professionals, academics, and others. Notable candidates include television journalists Paula Yacoubian and Ghada Eid. The party is fielding twenty-one candidates across fifteen districts. They have faced some criticism from fellow independents regarding their transparency and certain policy stances. As a report by The Century Foundation put it, “In the eyes of long-struggling reformers, Sabaa is a hub for elites, stacking up figures that are friendly with the establishment.”

LiHaqqi (“For My Right”) – The Kollouna Watani branch fielding eleven candidates exclusively in the Aley-Chouf district.

Muwatinun wa Muwatinat fi Dawla (“Citizens in a State”) – A group fielding seven candidates across five districts. Their most prominent candidate is Charbel Nahas, an economist and two-time former cabinet minister (of telecommunications and labor).

Tol’et Rihatkon (“You Stink”) – The parliamentary incarnation of the movement of the same name that led mass street demonstrations in 2015 in protest against the waste collection crisis. Their candidate in Beirut I is the director and activist Lucien Bourjeily.

Sawwet Sah (“Vote Correct”) – A group comprising former members of the Free Patriotic Movement, founded by President Michel Aoun. Their most prominent candidate is Ziad Abs, who, as the Century Foundation report notes, “was key to drafting the Memorandum of Understanding between the FPM and Hezbollah in 2006.” Some activists close to the Kollouna Watani Coalition have expressed frustration to Al-Jumhuriya about the decision to join forces with Sawwet Sah.

Additional Kollouna Watani groups include Hirak al-Metn al-A’la (“The Upper Metn Movement”), Liqa’ al-Dawla al-Madaniyya (“The Civil State Congress”), Muttahidun (“United”), Tajammu’ Abna’ Baalbek (“The Sons of Baalbek Gathering”), al-Marsad al-Sha’bi li-Muharabat al-Fasad (“The Popular Observatory for the Combating of Corruption”), and Liqa’ al-Huwwiyya wal-Siyada (“The Identity and Sovereignty Congress”). A full list of Kollouna Watani candidates, with biographies, is available here.

As for the other groups outside the Kollouna Watani umbrella, they include:

Kelna Beirut (“We Are All Beirut”) – Another group comprising former Beirut Madinati activists, including the engineer Ibrahim Mneimneh, who headed Beirut Madinati’s municipal electoral list. They are running eight candidates, all in Beirut II.                                  

Madaniyya (“Civil”) – A group fielding eight candidates exclusively in the Aley-Chouf district. They include the prominent environmental activist Mark Daou, and the NGO founder Maya Terro.

Shbe3na 7aki (“We’re Fed Up of Talk”) – A group of five predominantly Shia candidates running against the Hezbollah-Amal duopoly in the southern Nabatieh-Bint Jbeil-Marjayoun-Hasbaya district. All known critics of the Party of God, they include the lawyer and author Rami Ollaik, and the journalist Ali al-Amin, who was notably assaulted by Hezbollah members on April 22 while putting up electoral posters in his hometown, losing one of his teeth as a result. Their list also includes one member of the Lebanese Forces party, Fadi Salameh, somewhat compromising their status as independents.

The 10,452 Party – An all-women list fielding five candidates in the northern district of Akkar (where all their opposing candidates happen to be exclusively male). Their list includes the youngest candidate in the country, 26-year-old Gulay al-Assaad. According to the website Mist3ideen (“Prepared”), some of their candidates are supportive of Hezbollah and the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Sawt al-Nas (“The Voice of the People”) – The parliamentary incarnation of the Badna Nhasib (“We Want Accountability”) movement that was active during the protests of 2015. According to one of its candidates, Hani Fayad, it’s of an ideologically authoritarian far-left/far-right background, with members hailing from Baathist, Communist, and Syrian Social Nationalist parties.

For a near-comprehensive breakdown of all almost opposition candidates, along with a (subjective) evaluation of their stances on various issues based on interviews with them, see the Mist3ideen (“Prepared”) website.

 

What’s their platform?

Broadly speaking, all the groups claim to be against corruption, inefficiency, abuses of power, and the like. Where they have made notable, specific policy pledges on key issues, a selection of these are highlighted below. (To state their positions comprehensively is not possible here; the manifesto of Sabaa alone, for example, totals 43 pages.) Owing to the diversity of groups involved, it’s not always possible to generalize their position, with stances varying on a number of issues.

Economy

“We believe the effective state is one that guarantees essential services for the people, and secures [them] a dignified life, such that we pledge to enact an inclusive and accessible housing policy, by adopting a modern law for all existing rents, and encouraging the concept of proprietary lease for residency, and facilitating housing loans, and creating residential projects with a communal objective, affordable for those with limited income” – LiBaladi website.

“Pensions will become a right for all citizens; employees and non-employees” – Sabaa manifesto.

“We will work to create more than 82,000 additional jobs over the coming four years” – Sabaa manifesto.

“The oil curse will not prevail over us! Nor will we squander this wealth on public debt repayments as some politicians push for. Instead, we will adopt a conservative strategy regarding the management of the oil [and gas] revenues” – Sabaa manifesto.

Infrastructure and services

“[We support] a plan to resolve the crisis of production and distribution of electricity, and to develop public and joint transport, and the communications and Internet networks, with the goal of stopping the continuous hemorrhage” – LiBaladi.

“We will secure round-the-clock electricity within three years, maximum” – Sabaa manifesto.

“We will bring back the train in a modern way, and create rail lines between the major cities” – Sabaa manifesto.

Human rights (including women’s and LGBT rights)

“We pledge to abolish […] practices repressive to public and private freedoms (first and foremost the freedom of expression, including as regards artistic and cultural works, and opinion, and gathering, and demonstration, and participation in public life, and the freedom of belief, and the right to respect for individual privacy, and the confidentiality of correspondence, among others).” – LiBaladi website.

“We are definitely pro eradicating law 534 that discriminates against homosexuality. We are pro equality on all levels” – LiBaladi candidate Gilbert Doumit, quoted by CNN.

“We will pass a law allowing Lebanese women to grant their citizenship to their family […] given that the current law is at odds with the text of the Lebanese Constitution for one thing, and with the spirit of international agreements for another” – Sabaa manifesto.

LiBaladi candidate Gilbert Doumit and the Madaniyya list, among others, have expressed support for abolishing the Kafala (“Custodianship”) system that critics say deprives foreign workers of elementary human and labor rights.

Legal reform

“The journey begins with the application of the Lebanese Constitution, namely the elimination of the criterion of sectarian distribution in constitutional institutions and public administration, by forming a national committee for the elimination of sectarianism and creating a senate in which sects are represented equally […] as well as establishing an electoral law without sectarian restrictions, and with broad districts” – LiBaladi website.

“[The first law I would work for if I won is] a civil personal status law. Why? […] So we can start becoming citizens in Lebanon” – LiBaladi candidate Joumana Haddad.

“Our censorship laws are from [19]47. November, ’47 […] from the days of black-and-white television. General Security decides which film gets accepted and which one doesn’t. What does General Security have to do with this decision?” – LiBaladi candidate Gilbert Doumit.

“We will forbid legislation [permitting] child marriage, and make eighteen the legal minimum age for marriage, for men and women, irrespective of their sect” – Sabaa manifesto.

LiBaladi candidate Gilbert Doumit and the Madaniyya list have both expressed support for decriminalizing cannabis.

Judicial reform

“Naturally, we are for eliminating the military courts, given they are exceptional courts, the working mechanisms and makeup of which are at odds with the characteristics of a democratic system, and justice, and the right to a defense” – LiBaladi website.

Healthcare

“We pledge […] to establish the right to free physical and mental healthcare, available to all, and to guarantee the provision of high quality services for all stages of care and treatment” – LiBaladi website.

“We shall make of the major governmental hospitals an example to be proud of; providing citizens with free, high quality healthcare on par with the services of private hospitals” – Sabaa manifesto.

Environment

“We [will] adopt a sustainable and effective environmental policy through approving the legislation necessary to empower the decentralized administrative authorities, and allocate the financial and technical resources needed to implement the integrated management of solid waste on the basis of the suitable health and environmental criteria” – LiBaladi website.

Foreign policy & defense

“We demand that [the political forces currently in power] sever their ties and allegiances [to foreign states] that have turned Lebanese factions into proxies putting foreign interests before the [Lebanese] national interest, creating a state of internal blockage that threatens the sovereignty and security of the country” – LiBaladi website.

“We affirm that resistance to Israel in all its social, cultural, economic, political, and defensive forms is a national duty, and not the prerogative of any one faction at the expense of another. In terms of defense, we pledge to extend the state’s sovereignty over all its territories, and over its borders, and inside the camps, by setting out and implementing a sovereign strategy for the Lebanese state, comprehensive and multi-faceted” – LiBaladi website.

Syrian refugees

Regarding refugees’ return to Syria, “the international community has to guarantee their protection. We can’t [just] throw humans out, saying ‘Go on, go back’. Like us Lebanese, when we were displaced during the civil war, no state told us, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re going to die, go back to your country’” – LiBaladi candidate Gilbert Doumit, 17 April, 2018.

“Every human being living on Lebanese land must have [at least] the bare minimum of rights […] Syrians in Lebanon must be treated the same as any other workers in Lebanon. Meaning, they should pay their taxes […] receive social security, receive their rights” – LiBaladi candidate Gilbert Doumit, 17 April, 2018.

 “We will approach the Syrian refugees file with full seriousness. We will undertake complete sweeping operations for Syrian refugees via the municipalities, in the aim of facilitating the return to the safe zones of the largest number [possible] of them in the fastest time [possible], and creating suitable camps for those unable to return for security reasons; this in cooperation with the United Nations” – Sabaa manifesto.

Hezbollah’s weapons

“The Lebanese Constitution is unequivocal: security and defense are solely the responsibility of the state, and no one else; not Hezbollah, not the Amal Movement. We can’t build a state while the text of the Constitution is not applied […] our position on Hezbollah is unambiguous.” – LiBaladi candidate Gilbert Doumit.

“Decisions of war and peace must be in the hands of the Lebanese state alone […] weapons must be in the hands of the Lebanese army” – Sawwet Sah candidate Ziad Abs.

 

Can they win?

An outright victory is as good as impossible, for all number of reasons (direct vote buying and intimidation by the incumbents; an electoral law stacked in the latter’s favor; and longstanding patronage networks that keep much of the electorate dependent—financially and otherwise—on the establishment; for a start).

Still, analysts believe there’s a chance the newcomers can take a modest number of seats, particularly in certain districts where conditions are more favorable than in others. By a quirk of mathematics, the percentage of votes needed to win a seat is lowest in the Aley-Chouf district, where a list need secure only 7.7% of the vote to take a seat. As such, at least one of the district’s thirteen seats is expected to go to either the Kollouna Watani or Madaniyya list, according to pollsters. The Beirut II, Tripoli-Minyeh-Dannieh, and Nabatieh-Bint Jbeil-Marjayoun-Hasbaya lists also have comparatively low threshold percentages (9.1% in all three).

Yet it’s not merely a matter of the percentages, but also “the composition of the district,” says Dr. Sami Atallah, Executive Director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. Beirut I, for instance, is “very urban, very wealthy; an urban space […] if they can’t penetrate anything in Beirut I, that’s a [problem].”

All in all, though reluctant to hazard a firm prediction, citing a lack of hard data, Atallah told Al-Jumhuriya, “If [the independents] grab three seats, or three to five, that would be good. It would be very good.”

 

Conclusion: A genie out the bottle

In all likelihood, then, Lebanon will be largely the same country next week, and next year, as it is today. Even were the newcomers to sweep the parliament in a landslide, their grip on real power would be minimal. It suffices to recall that the anti-Hezbollah ‘March 14’ coalition has held a parliamentary majority for the last thirteen years, during which time the Party of God has grown immeasurably more powerful, and March 14 has all but dissolved. The country’s problems go far deeper than who sits in the largely toothless council of deputies.

All the same, it’s possible that history will look back on Sunday’s election as a milestone, even if not a single seat goes to the independents. A paradigm shift has undoubtedly occurred, no matter how limited in scale. Since the very founding of the Lebanese Republic, politics has essentially consisted of communities rallying around one za’im (“strongman”) or another, typically on the basis of religious sect, and offering this leader uncritical loyalty in exchange for a modicum of services and protection. As recently as the 2009 election, the choice boiled down in effect to which cartel of zu’ama represented the lesser evil. The achievement of the new contenders has been to break out of this dynamic, turning the vote instead into a choice between the very concept of the za’im and that of the accountable public servant; between sectarian warlordism and secular, constitutional democracy. This is a transformation unlikely to be soon undone, no matter what happens at the ballot box Sunday.