The 2016 Municipal Elections: Lebanon’s Lifeline for Democracy?
In 1932, as part of the gradual construction of its state-building mechanism, Lebanon had its only census to date. Debatably, it was the sole method to initially register individuals as native citizens, residents of the country or “foreigners”. Thereafter, a political configuration based on a 6:5 ratio (Christians: Muslims) took shape. As the French mandate endured, several internal clashes took place between the foreign power and the major Lebanese inter-sectarian factions until November 22nd, 1943, when the independence of Lebanon was finally recognised by the French government.
Arguably, with time, the 6:5 equation was the first “victim” of a long lasting civil war which lasted from 1975 until 1990, when the Ta’if agreement put an end to it and validated the concept of sectarian consociationalism, dictating a new power-sharing formula based on a 6:6 ratio homogeneity. Henceforth, the entire Lebanese political life, electoral systems and even administrative operating scheme fed on this new dogma. To determine whether the parity between the country’s major sects is justifiable and equitable is beyond this publication’s scope, rather, it is evident that this new framework prevented a new census to preserve “civil peace”, as it could have revived an existential clash in the society.
Administratively, Lebanon is outlined upon three major levels: first, there are 8 major governorates (adjusted from being 6, via the Law 522/2003); secondly, the governorates are divided into 26 districts; thirdly, the districts are further divided into municipalities, which account to around 1,100+, together with approximately 1,500+ villages, due to their continuous formation, merging and/or separation. In addition, municipalities are usually part of a wider Federation of Municipalities.
Back to the renowned census of 1932 – a mere tool to record citizens’ residence origin -municipality councils differed with respect to their native residential base, ranging from 9 to 24 members. These councils have a 6-years tenure, however elections were automatically renewed from 1963 till 1975 via extension laws, then suspended during the entire civil war period until they were then resumed as of 1998. Historically, Lebanon’s municipal elections frequently distort political alliances amid local and domestic intertwined dynamics in cities and villages. Feudalistic figures, familial notables, spiritual leaders among other domestic affluent individuals, all contribute to the “democratic” process by giving it a multidimensional significance. Thus, feudalism and clientelism are the key attributes serving the country’s overall modus operandi, known as sectarian consociationalism.
Consensus, face-offs & new emerging political agents
The elections kicked off on May 8th 2016 and lasted throughout the entire month, rolling over a weekly basis (on Sundays) across all the governorates. Throughout this period, politicians, governmental officials, municipal figures, analysts, the media and simply any citizen would refrain from anticipating the outcomes, because of the elections’ unorthodox way of action: it is almost impossible to achieve a standardized trend due to the variability of givens provided not only by villages’ inhabitants, but also members of the same household. Municipal clashes held several major titles since some were political ones, some were sectarian, while others held simply developmental aspects.
The article does not want to dwell on a methodical examination of the results, rather a broad demonstration of some electoral areas is approached, debatably due to their unique and lucrative significance. Examples of these key cities and governorates: Beirut, Baalbek, Zahle, Jounieh, Northern Metn area, Saida, and Tripoli.
The nation’s capital municipality witnessed a direct showdown between the “Beirutis’ list”, a coalition gathering the opposing camps of March 8 and 14, and Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City), composed by civil society activists and based on volunteer political campaigning. Beirutis’ List won 60% of the votes, while Beirut Madinati managed to grab the remaining 40%; the electoral turnout was as low as 20%. Under the current majoritarian law, known as the “1960’s law”, an overall slight advantage would award the succeeding side with the entire list to be part of the councils, regardless of the achieved winning percentage. Had it been a proportional electoral law, “Beirut Madinati” would have seized the corresponding 40% of Beirut’s council.
Moving to Baalbek, its former mayor Mr. Ghaleb Yaghi led a secular list under the name of Baalbek Madinati (Baalbek My City) with the collaboration of familial figures in the town, in order to oppose the mighty Shiite duopoly of Amal Movement and Hezbollah. Similarly to its counterpart in Beirut, the list was able to clutch 40% of total votes, more than in the previous terms, yet not enough to obtain municipal seats, due to the majoritarian law. Yaghi among others, were thrilled by the results, specially for the voting rate among the Shiite society, considering also the rumors of bribes and pressure exerted by the Amal-Hezbollah partnership.
In the city of Zahle (the largest predominantly Christian Middle-eastern town), the capital of Bekaa governorate, the coalition of the three prominent Christian parties (Lebanese Forces, Kataeb Party & the Free Patriotic Movement) rallied versus Zahle’s historical feudal family (Skaff) and MP Fattouch’s brother. The Future Movement and its arch rival Hezbollah backed the families, as the first supported Skaff and the latter endorsed Fattoush, making them conditional allies. Nevertheless, the tripod Christian alliance managed to win the entire 21 municipal seats.
After decades of intra-Christian military and media warfare, an historic “Declaration of Intent” was crafted between the Lebanese Forces (led by Dr. Samir Geagea) and the Free Patriotic Movement (led by MP Michel Aoun). The sect’s two dominant parties decided to join forces in municipal elections “wherever” and “whenever” possible, as the municipalities imposed several considerations such as developmental and familial characteristics. In parallel, each side tried to maintain their pre-constructed alliances between the respective camps (LF/March 14 – FPM/March 8). Overall, the coalition managed to succeed in a wide array of municipalities across Lebanon, lost in the minor ones, and faced-off in exceptionally few others such as the city of Jounieh (capital of Keserwen district), where they had already formed their own alliances, either with other political parties or with traditional families. Yet, they decided not to jeopardise their newly established nationwide accord but to support the council regardless of the winner. It ended by a toe-to-toe difference of a mere 110 votes. As the elections wrapped up, various Christian parties and independent political figures scrutinised the LF-FPM alliance, trying to undermine its ability to represent 86% of the Christian community. According to the LF and FPM, they emphasized that undervaluing the agreement was a forged claim to undermine the success of other Christian counterparts. In a TV interview, Geagea pointed out that the LF-FPM faced a “major war” from all parties during the municipal elections, and that the acclaimed 86% is a survey’s result which showed the percentage of Christians supporting the reconciliation.
For the past 50 years, the former Deputy Prime Minister and MP Michel Murr was considered the most influential figure in the Northern Metn region; this term was not different. He emerged as the most evident winner, as approximately all the lists he endorsed have prevailed throughout the Metn municipalities plus its Federation council. He had various alliances across the area, nevertheless polls confirmed him as the leading standalone electoral power.
In Saida, despite the historical presence of the Popular Nasserite Organization and the rise of miscellaneous Islamist groups which gained a respected percentage of the Sunni votes, the capital of the South Governorate cemented the power of the Future Movement, led by former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad El-Hariri.
The final round was in the Northern Governorate. Its capital Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, delivered a climactic ending, since it seemed initially a no-brainer electoral course due to the mismatch of the opposing parties. On one hand, despite divergent political affiliations, a wide coalition, endorsed by two former Prime Ministers (Mikati & Hariri), Tripoli’s incumbent MPs and Ministers, the city’s traditional families, reputed tycoons and an assortment of influential Islamist groups, formed a list. On the other hand, another list was supported by Ashraf Rifi, the former General Director of the Lebanese Internal Security and newly resigned Minister of Justice. Previously, Rifi was known for his strong devotion and commitment to the Future Movement and its leader Saad El Hariri, until distinct approaches on domestic politics emerged. Arguably, it was the nation’s prime upset for years now, as Rifi was able to acquire against all odds 18 seats out of 24. Due to the significance of Tripoli as primary reflection of the Sunni’s nationwide political inclination, Rifi was considered the new emerging leader of the sect. “Rifi’s victory in the local elections poses a serious challenge to Sunni leaders in the country, who need the support of Lebanon’s Sunni bastion of Tripoli to claim legitimate representation of the community” (The New Arab, 2016).
Broadly, three major classification could be drawn upon the Lebanese municipal results. Firstly, consensus was achieved between competing parties in numerous villages, and the distribution of council seats took place among the involved electoral players, who shared power between themselves. Secondly, brutal face-offs were observed in numerous towns all over the Lebanese soil. Thirdly, new emerging agents started to propagate in domestic political life, primarily linked to the civil society.
Outlooks regarding the process: skepticism vs optimism
Democracy in Lebanon has been handcuffed for six years now, and surpassing constitutional deadlines became a norm. Parliamentary elections should have taken place back in June 2013, unfortunately they were postponed twice due to the alibi of security and political “instability”, by extending the new term until 2017. In parallel, the Presidency has been vacant since May 2014 as the Parliament failed for a staggering 41st time to elect a new President, due to delicate internal conflicts of consociational power sharing scheme, alongside parties affiliations with regional and international powers. All these political violations have put the municipal elections under the spotlights.
Skepticism is growing among independent voters, because the achieved results across the nation clearly displayed that a proportional electoral law would have ensured completely different outcomes, as the 1960 law would make the Lebanese political class more attached to this rigged majoritarian rule and hence refrain it from drafting a righteous representative law. The country is suffering from an impasse, which is influencing all the facets of proper governance.
Conversely, optimism can be sensed as polarization has proliferated into the two major camps of March 8 and March 14; divisions are taking place among allies themselves. More than ever, public will is on the rise as citizens have demonstrated that communal worries, such as economic distresses and social ailments, are their fundamental concerns, rather than blindly preserving the status of the ruling political class. They have revealed readiness to defy any shortcoming in missing on further constitutional deadlines. “Lebanon’s major political parties cannot afford extending the Parliament’s term for the third time, and there is increasing pressure on them to compromise” (Macaron, 2016).
Significance of the 2016 electoral process
Brushing aside the arguments and counterarguments that may emerge, two certainties ought to be considered. First, one cannot shun the fact that political parties have succeed in the majority of the cities and villages, nevertheless the outcomes turned out to be below the thresholds that each sectarian power envisioned. Secondly, traditional and feudal families have fiercely contested against the political class, and have won several influential councils. However, they cannot be considered as an eligible alternative to the establishment, due to their own historic reign in their local municipalities and governmental positions. Consequently, the exclusivity of representation was undermined to a great extent across all sects. Political parties, feudalistic families and traditional public figures can’t depict themselves anymore as the chief power by a landslide majority; they need to reevaluate their national agenda. Municipality results have mixed up all political considerations and shuffled the alliances cards, via which archrivals joined forces in several villages and competed in others, and in parallel some partisans clashed and allied in various places. Paradoxical campaigning and ironical coalitions prevailed, within the alibi that political powers are approaching towns on a case-by-case basis due to the previously discussed peculiarities.
The municipal elections verified that the Lebanese society is clearly irritated by the government’s nonchalant approach towards fundamental social, economical and political issues. Disparities of electoral results are vivid testimonials that citizens are eager to restore democracy, nevertheless people are still attached to the lasting sectarian and clientelistic affiliations, rather than competency and adequate credentials.” A significant risk-averse segment of the electorate, still prefers voting for the devil it knows” (Rizkallah, 2016).
Despite the lack of main groundbreaking wins across numerous municipalities, civil society has a decisive role to play as public governance watchdogs. It is now being perceived as a promising challenger, who needs to build a further momentum and prove to be a worthy nationwide alternative. The foremost impediment remains the willingness to organise themselves across all Lebanese territories and to be guided by a clear unified vision. Until then, the overall electoral process in Lebanon will apparently remain a zero-sum game, as the involved stakeholders reckon their gains and losses. Hopefully, the Municipality Elections 2016 could prove to be a defibrillator supplying Lebanon a lifeline for democracy.
Communication Advisor of International Affairs
MA in International Affairs (Lebanese American University)
Macaron J. (2016), What Municipal Elections Mean for Lebanon. Retrieved June 26, 2016 from bit.ly/1suXMLs.
Naharnet (2016), Geagea Decries ‘Major War’ on LF, FPM in Elections, Says Both Mustaqbal, Hizbullah against Maarab Agreement. Retrieved June 26, 2016 from bit.ly/29Wfgfq.
Rizkallah A. (2016), Beirut’s election was surprisingly competitive. Could it shake up Lebanese politics? Retrieved June 28, 2016 from wapo.st/1T5fD5D.
The New Arab (2016), North Lebanon local elections dethrone traditional Sunni leaders. Retrieved June 24, 2016 from bit.ly/29CUAGf.