Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Few surprises in Lebanon

Discontent with the ruling class in Lebanon did not translate into victories in this week’s municipal elections, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

In Lebanon’s municipal elections held on 8 May, the first elections in the country in six years, the biggest surprise turned out to be the lack of surprises. The traditional parties reaffirmed their control over political life in the country amid strong competition from major families and an outmatched civil society movement in Beirut.

The discontent of the media, intellectuals and activists with the ruling class in Lebanon did not translate into action, except marginally in the capital and demonstrated in the votes received by the My City Beirut slate. Although the group won many votes, these were ultimately not enough to secure it a seat on the Beirut City Council, according to preliminary election returns.

The second surprise in the municipal race was that political parties usually at loggerheads with each other came together to coordinate in the elections. These are the same parties whose differences have produced a deadlock in the country’s constitutional institutions, first and foremost the Chamber of Deputies, whose activities have been suspended, and the presidency, which has been vacant for two years.

In the Lebanese capital, warring Lebanese parties allied on the Beirutis list, led by the Future Movement, against the Beirut My City list, led by civil society elements and some former members of the March 14 Alliance.

The Beirut My City list included prominent public figures and artists, among them Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki. Also in the mix was the Citizens in a State slate, led by former minister Charbel Nahas, also part of the civil society movement and the Lebanese left.

Hizbullah boycotted the elections in Beirut, a stance consistent with the fact that its main partner, the Amal Movement, was a major part of the Beirutis list led by the Future Movement. The boycott was apparently an attempt to avoid the embarrassment of allying with the Future Movement, given the differences between them, though in fact the boycott worked to the advantage of the Future Movement.

The scene in front of the polling station in the upscale Firdan area of Beirut, where Future Movement leader Saad Al-Hariri cast his vote, was remarkable. Future Movement supporters and allies from the Islamic Group (the Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood) stood with supporters of Ahbash, the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, the Sunni religious group closest to the Syrian regime, to support the Beirutis list, which brought together nearly all the major Lebanese parties.

The Beirutis list also included the Aounists led by Michel Aoun, a political opponent of the Future Movement and Saad Al-Hariri. Despite their differences, they had come together on the Beirutis slate against civil society.

In Zahle, the bastion of Catholicism in the East and the biggest Christian city in Lebanon, a battle raged between local Christian political forces and families and an alliance of major Christian parties in the city made up of the Free Patriotic Movement or FPM, the Lebanese Forces Party and the Phalanges Party.

It seemed to some that the popular bloc led by Myriam Skaff, widow of the late local leader Elie Skaff, and former minister Nicola Fattoush, was going to best the parties, but in an upset the Christian parties won all the city’s seats following a race that saw accusations of bribery and vote-buying.

Joseph Maalouf, a member of the Lebanese Forces Party, announced the victory of the Develop Zahle slate, which was supported by the Lebanese Forces, FPM and the Phalanges.

According to Maalouf, the slate backed by the major Christian parties swept the elections, taking all 21 seats on the city council.

“The people of Zahle showed that political money cannot challenge the dignity of the city,” he said. “But we will follow up the issue of bribery and political money, and several cases have already been referred to the courts.”

Maalouf said he regretted that “some had exploited the difficult economic situation of the Zahle citizens and intentionally seized the identity cards of a great many of them” in order to use their votes.

In the Shia areas of the Beqaa Valley, Hizbullah lists won, allied with Amal in numerous areas, against various family lists. In a few cases, candidates not affiliated with Hizbullah won seats.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, the deputy secretary-general of Hizbullah, announced that two of his group’s slates swept the races in Baalbek and Brital. “We won fully in all municipalities with the Development and Loyalty list, with the exception of slight irregularities in six municipalities,” Qassem said, the “irregularities” being victories by people from outside the list.

Qassem said that the elections in Baalbek and Brital had “assumed a political nature, while in the other municipalities they were of a development nature”. He added that the city councils of both towns would cooperate with all residents “under the canopy of the law”.

The My City Beirut slate, which made a major political splash in Beirut, spoke of numerous cases of electoral violations and fraud. Despite several irregularities, however, the elections came off peacefully and were largely clean, according to numerous observers who said that the vote-buying had been less than in previous elections.

Many media outlets focussed on the low turnout in Beirut, seeing it as a sign of political apathy and the waning popularity of the Future Movement. But Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk pointed out that the voter turnout in Beirut had been higher than in previous elections and that, in general, it was less in major cities and capitals than in rural areas and towns.

Lebanese researcher Mohamed Shams Al-Din said that in previous elections in Beirut the strong political parties had united against the founder of the Future Movement, late prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, with the support of Syria, which at the time maintained a military presence in the country. But, nevertheless, Al-Hariri had still won.

A surprise came in the town of Arsal, near the Syrian border. Its mountains are occupied by militants from the terrorist Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (IS) group, and the town hosts some 70,000 Syrian refugees, or double the local population of 35,000.

Despite this, the elections went smoothly, and Machnouk described the polling station in the troubled town as “the best in the country”. The elections also renewed the political dominance of Al-Hariri in Arsal, where much of the populace belongs to the family.

It was noteworthy that the major Lebanese parties largely avoided competing against one another in any district. Moreover, most of the competitive races were between candidates from the same sect, which minimised sectarian resentments.

The race that saw the greatest tension was that between local residents in Zahle, all of whom were Christian. There was also a physical tussle between members of the FPM in Beirut due to differences over support of the Beirutis list, which the FPM officially endorsed. According to reports, some FPM supporters refused to vote for the Beirutis slate, choosing My City Beirut instead.

Lebanese democracy scored a victory with the holding of the elections, while the traditional parties won at the polls. But the traditional parties now find themselves in a bind: all the security justifications they earlier gave for postponing the parliamentary elections have been disproven by the Lebanese voters.

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