Lebanon’s Parliamentary election: An Uphill battle for reform

As Lebanon prepares for parliamentary elections scheduled for May 15, the international community needs to invest heavily in the monitoring of the democratic process and to document the many expected violations which the ruling establishment will commit, and consequently use the evidence to hold them accountable. While the forces of change in the country remain incapable of standing up to the deficient Lebanese system, this election should act as an anchor for the next wave of protest, which will arrive in the foreseeable future and which needs a clear political vision and a transition plan to lead Lebanon into the future.

 

Many in Lebanon and around the world are looking towards the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for May 15 as a chance for some sort of change to the sclerotic political establishment, which is blamed for the total collapse of the country.

The October 17 protest movement which rallied popular protest in 2019 gave hope that the days of the ruling establishment were numbered and that the forces of change would be able to field a number of candidates and a platform that could lead to a peaceful transition of power. Or so it seemed.

In reality however, the upcoming elections do not bode well for the opposition which has failed to live up to the challenge for many objective as well as subjective reasons as the different factions within the forces of change remain disjointed, self-damaging and useless. Yet, the projected failure of change through the ballot box stems from structural flaws in the political system and the acts of elites that dominate it, who for the longest time put forth electoral laws which are disadvantageous for change, the latest being the current proportional law of 2017.

 

Proportional Representation to Empower the Elite

As it stands, the law to elect the next 128 members of parliament follows the proportional representation model which entails candidates to run on lists and consequently to achieve a certain electoral threshold, which in the case of Lebanon is the number of votes cast in a district divided by the number of the seats for that district. This threshold is extremely problematic in itself as it favours big parties and factions, which have the political pull and financial resources to mobilize the electorate on election day and to provide them with prior clientelist services in order to urge them to vote.

Delving deeper into the electoral law confirms that the political elite and specifically, the son-in-law of the Lebanese President Michael Aoun, the infamous Gebran Bassil, have tailored the law to serve their own agenda and that of their main political ally Hezbollah, Iran’s executive arm in the Mediterranean region. Consequently, the gerrymandering of electoral districts leaves the entire process flawed and renders it futile.

 

Disunity within the Forces of Change

Even if one is to disregard the aforementioned structural challenges of the upcoming elections, the reality on the ground ensures the defeat of any and all challengers of the ruling elite. The forces of change which emerged out of the October 17 revolution have failed to unite or to even present a clear roadmap for change, starting with underscoring sovereignty and disarming Hezbollah, which provides protection to the corrupt political elite. While some groups have highlighted these issues, most of the opposition is either too afraid to confront Hezbollah or willing to serve as Trojan horses for the ruling parties. Most activists, many of which are obsessed with fame and media exposure, have transformed their platforms into an all-you-can-eat buffet of disjointed propositions for reform. Even though the Lebanese at large are disgruntled by the ruling establishment, getting them to vote requires an elaborate organisational framework, network of logistics, and more importantly a clear and above all road map for a political program that understands the challenge at hand.

Yet another challenge or perhaps false hope is the diaspora voting, which according to many observers will be clearly in favour of the forces of change, as many of these voters are people who have been forced to emigrate to look for a new source of livelihood or had their lifesavings stolen away by the banks and the ruling establishment after depositing them in Lebanon . Their votes would surely have an impact, yet as it stands the Lebanese state is almost bankrupt and its embassies and diplomats around the world have not been paid in over four months. Thus, their ability to carry out this complex logistical operation is under serious doubt.

 

Absence of Judicial Oversight in Lebanon

Above all, if elections do actually take place, many members of the opposition will find it difficult to take recourse to the Lebanese judiciary and especially the Constitutional Council, whose members each report to their own sect and its leader thus impeding the council’s impartiality. This also applies to the various branches of law enforcement, which will be tasked with providing security for the elections. They have time and again failed to win the trust of the general public by disregarding the oath they have taken to protect and to serve and decided instead to bully anyone who dares cross their respective political patron.

Despite the aforementioned bleak forecast, parliamentary elections are of utmost importance in Lebanon’s ongoing quest for political normality. Consequently, both the Lebanese as well as the international community, which has a vested interest in the recovery of this ailing country, are expected to understand the challenges of confronting the political elite on their own turf. Thus, international bodies need to invest heavily in the election process and document all infringements and the expected absence of fairness and transparency. Even though after elections the Lebanese judiciary might be reluctant to hold the elites responsible, the forces of change can use these documents to leverage international justice.

Moreover, the international community should be clear to dissociate and refrain from normalizing relations with members of the Lebanese establishment who are found guilty of meddling in the elections and to sanction them for their abuse of power and human rights violations. Contrary to what some members of the international community preach, sanctions are an effective tool against a ruling class which is obsessed with power and the accumulation of wealth. It is important to make sure to also include junior officers and judges, who are the binding agent of this corrupt system.

Parliamentary elections are merely one step in a long road of recovery, a process which should be enforced to ensure that the presidential elections, scheduled for October 31 are equally respected, thus preserving what remains of Lebanon’s feeble democracy.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. His book Conflict on Mount Lebanon: The Druze, the Maronites and Collective Memory (Edinburgh University Press) covers collective identities and the Lebanese Civil War.