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A Box Office Success?

The Lebanese Elections

by KARIM MAKDISI

Lebanon’s June 7 national election was a box office success. It had it all: shady politicians, foreign intrigue, bribes, beautiful women, meddling religious figures, sectarian agitation, recently exposed spy rings, fundamentalists collaborating with capitalists, the poor and oppressed voting for the rich and privileged. It was a brilliantly marketed production with more twists and turns than a Hitchcock thriller, and an unpredictable finale in which the ‘good’ guys (the pro-US, anti-Iran, pro-‘moderate’ Arab, pro-‘peace process,’ March 14 coalition headed by Prime Minister-in-waiting Sa’ad Hariri, son of assassinated former PM Rafiq Hariri) defeated the ‘bad’ guys (the pro-Resistance, pro-‘Axis of Evil,’ anti-corruption Opposition coalition led by Hizbullah and Christian leader Michel Aoun) to retain their Parliamentary majority. All this accomplished with few security problems, record voter turn out, generally magnanimous winners and dignified losers.  No wonder Western elections observers were smiling from ear to ear as they proclaimed, “free and fair” from the rooftops. They were, in the words of Jimmy Carter, so “proud” of the natives, who showed that they could be “democratic” and even managed to re-produce the patented “third world” grin and blue-ink-thumb of Iraq 2005 fame.

But what exactly was all the excitement about, and what, if anything, have the elections changed in Lebanon?

Let us review the facts.

First, the electoral law used for the 2009 elections was deeply flawed and designed to preserve elite interests. Lebanon’s ruling political class, across sectarian lines, had earlier rejected meaningful electoral reforms demanded by civil society and supported by a majority of citizens: adopting a system of proportional representation that would reflect Lebanon’s diversity and promote independent candidates; establishing an independent electoral commission to oversee the elections; effectively controlling campaign financing; and using standardized ballot papers rather than pre-printed lists that patrons hand out to their clients well in advance of elections. By retaining the regressive majoritarian electoral system and creating small electoral districts, the 2009 electoral law greatly exacerbated sectarian divisions in the country and effectively restricted the electoral contests to a small group within the existing political class. All in all, 80-90% of the parliamentary seats on offer had already been decided de facto prior to election day: most districts with clear Sunni or Shia’a Muslim majorities voted in their districts with frightening uniformity and discipline for the March 14 coalition and the Opposition respectively, and only the mixed Christian districts were genuinely in play with fierce competition between the two sides. The focus on Christian districts, in turn, brought out the kind of jingoism and chauvinism that has long characterized Christian elite discourse and inflated self-regard, with each side insisting it represented and defended the true interests of (Christian) Lebanon. Post-election analysis within elite Christian circles has thus centered on which side had won in the “pure” or “clean” districts, meaning those areas with Christian-majority electorate unsullied by Muslim voters. Under these conditions it is no surprise that fascist-lite candidates, notably from the March 14 Lebanese Forces and Phalanges Party, gained seats by recalling their old project of dividing Lebanon into ‘pure’ sectarian cantons.

Second, within the logic of an overtly sectarian political system and electoral law framework, it is no surprise that the politics of fear and revenge reaped its reward during the 2009 elections. March 14 electoral teams succeeded in mobilizing and disciplining the Sunni electorate across the country—which determined victories in key mixed districts such as the Catholic center of Zahle—largely by drawing on Hizbullah’s ill-conceived triumphalist language on the one year anniversary of the armed May 2008 civil conflict that capped two years of intense political stalemate between the two camps. In little over 24 hours, Hizbullah and its militia allies had basically routed March 14 militias in Beirut. This defeat, in turn, was represented as a perceived humiliation for Sunni leader Sa’ad Hariri who had previously reassured his constituents that he would ‘defend’ Beirut and repel the ‘invaders.’ The compromise agreement reached in Doha, Qatar, in the aftermath of the May 7 street confrontations led to a period of stability as a national unity government was appointed, a consensus President elected, and an impartial and well-respected election expert from civil society (Ziad Baroud) confirmed as the Interior Minister in charge of ensuring a fair election process.

A year, of course, is a long time in politics. The March 14 coalition successfully focused its electoral campaign around two main themes designed to frighten the electorate. The first theme highlighted March 14’s broad support from international donors and patrons in stark contrast to the bleak picture of political and economic isolation that, they hinted, would likely result from an Opposition victory. This picture was backed up by a number of high-profile visits by US officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, who floated the possibility of Lebanon’s diplomatic isolation if March 14 did lose; as well as by a series of orchestrated international accusations of ‘terrorism’ against Hizbullah from Argentina and Germany to Azerbaijan and Egypt.  The second theme utilized sectarian agitation to encourage, on the one hand, Sunni voters to take their revenge against Hizbullah following the May 7 humiliation and thus halt the rise of perceived Shia’a hegemony in Lebanon; and, on the other hand, convince Christian voters that an Opposition victory would result in an Iranian takeover of Lebanon. Some swing Christian voters were actually convinced that Iranian-style chadors would be imposed on them if the Opposition won, an absurd notion by any objective standard. The Maronite Christian Patriarch’s pronouncement on the eve of the election that Christian voters should vote for March 14 or risk their collective existence as a Christian community was the final coup de grace in this regard. Thus in light of March 14’s effective two-pronged strategy—which we now know was backed up by unexpectedly successful on-the-ground work by their cadres throughout the country as well as by an unprecedented campaign of ‘service provision’ to their electorate such as flying expatriate citizens and their families in to vote—the Opposition’s popular and political momentum and capital, which had peaked at Doha, slowly dissipated as it was forced on the defensive. Out went the Opposition’s anti-corruption and policy themes, its call for change after years of mismanagement, theft of public assets, and lack of strategic vision; and in came a more belligerent, defiant tone symbolized by Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hasan Nassrallah’s triumphalist claim on the anniversary of the May 7 battles that its victory was a “glorious” day for Lebanon. The Opposition’s fate was being slowly sealed.

Third, amidst all the international attention given to elections in Lebanon and the region, it has somehow been forgotten—particularly by the voters themselves—that elections are supposed to be a means to a national end (particularly the potential of improvement in public social welfare and human security) rather than a contest for sectarian and international patron bragging rights. Lebanon, after all, has suffered greatly from nearly two decades of crony capitalism and neoliberal policies that all sectarian leaders have subscribed to since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990. Such policies have resulted in: one of the largest debts in the world (at 180% of GDP); unprecedented dependence on Gulf oil money to stimulate economic activity in limited sectors largely monopolized by the elite  (such as large-scale construction projects, real estate speculation, and the power and banking sectors) in parallel with the collapse of Lebanon’s productive sectors; environmental catastrophe; endemic water, sanitation and electricity shortages; soaring poverty rates that have reached nearly 40% of the total population (and tempered only by the vast sums of individual remittances sent home by Lebanese expatriates); manifestly unfair tax policies that effectively transfer wealth from the poor and middle classes to the rich; and massive gaps in social welfare, and thus basic interests, between the haves and have-nots across the country. All this, in turn, has led to growing social alienation and increased religiosity, the rise of gated communities patrolled by private security firms within the richer neighborhoods and embassy districts, and the spread of the discourse of ‘terrorism’ and ‘security islands’ (in the peripheral areas and Palestinian refugee camps) that has increasingly preoccupied western embassies, the UN, as well as state security apparatuses.

In this regard, the re-election of key March 14 leaders to power represents, from a policy perspective, the likely resumption of nearly two decades of unchecked neoliberal, free market ideology tailored to suit Big Business and characterized by the blurring of public and private commercial interests. We can expect that the project of divesting Lebanon’s public assets and natural resources into private hands that began in the 1990s, but stalled during the last few years of political instability, will proceed with renewed vigor.  Indeed the formulation of public policy itself has, in some key areas such as entry into the WTO, been privatized and handed over to management consultant companies to avoid any unseemly public debates. The Opposition’s likely return as a junior partner in the upcoming cabinet does not change this equation much, as both Hizbullah and General Aoun accept neoliberal logic albeit with a greater distaste for corruption. It should be remembered that it was under a Hizbullah appointed Water Minister that the plan to privatize Lebanon’s public water authorities was passed. Moreover, while Hizbullah is widely acknowledged as not being corrupt, it has a long record of frustrating pragmatism that includes the toleration of corruption among its partners within the Lebanese system as long as this policy helps protect the Resistance’s viability. For his part, General Aoun’s loudly proclaimed anti-corruption rhetoric represents the only potential check on large-scale corruption in Lebanon.

In sum, while Lebanon’s June 2009 elections might have been internationally praised as ‘free and fair,’ it represented a step backwards in terms of long-term, socially progressive reform for the Lebanese themselves. On the one hand it has re-entrenched sectarianism, deepened rifts and mistrust between Sunnis and Shia’a communities, and brought out the chauvinist tendencies within the Christian elite.   On the other hand, the elections returned to power politicians committed to crony capitalism and dependency on regional patrons. There are no socially progressive elements in either camp, and there is little hope that the newly elected parliament will address the inherent structural problems in Lebanon’s sectarian system that lead inexorably to conflict. Indeed, the truth is that the current mood of good will and apparent compromise between the election winners and losers is almost entirely a function of regional rapprochements between Syria and Saudi Arabia, and Iran and the US, rather than a collective realization among the newly elected politicians that things must change. This of course means that if and when regional tension returns, Lebanon will likely unravel once again. With the “peace process” train back on track, the Lebanese would be wise to fasten their seatbelts.

Despite this missed opportunity, however, it is not all doom and gloom. In comparison to the anti-democratic and authoritarian regimes in most Arab countries, from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Syria and the Palestinian Authority, at least Lebanon’s regular elections shows that peaceful transition of parliament and government is indeed possible (even as it preserves elite interests). Civil society played an important role in the technical aspects of the elections, though in general it will have to reverse the worrying trend towards de-politicization, “Ngo-ization,” and infatuation with Western donors to present a genuine check on the political elite. Finally, if Prime Minister in waiting Sa’ad Hariri was the clear winner of Lebanon’s 2009 elections, then the real star was undoubtedly Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud, a genuine reformer in a sea of heavy weight, Machiavellian politicians. He has been universally praised for his impartiality, professionalism and commitment in managing the massive technical aspects of the elections. His likely inclusion in the upcoming cabinet, currently being negotiated, would represent an important reminder to the collective, and very cynical, Lebanese public consciousness that it is indeed possible to be a politician and actually care about the public interest. If Baroud’s star does indeed continue to rise, then Lebanese voters might just decide that they can and should expect more from the other politicians.

KARIM MAKDISI is a professor in the Dept. of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut
karim.makdisi@aub.edu.lb