Haley Bobseine, an independent writer, researcher, and analyst on the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @haleybobseine.
Despite promises for reform, the erosion of March 8 and 14 political blocs, and shifting political alliances, traditional political elites remain determined to preserve the system that allows them to reap its spoils. They avoid tangible concessions, such as extensive anti-corruption reforms, which would only undermine their power. Indeed, local studies found parliament’s proposed legislation and passed laws do not address citizens’ concerns.
But greater relative security in recent years has allowed Lebanese voters to shift their focus to elites’ failure to deliver essential services or provide reforms. Non-establishment lists and candidates are responding with proposals for economic and other reforms such as secularization of the state, rule of law, and equal provision of basic services. Even if some do not win seats this year, Lebanese analysts argue that this sets the groundwork for potential future success at the polls.
Absent coherent, national, political platforms, elites are mobilizing their supporters on the basis of clientelism and sectarianism to counter both traditional and independent candidates. Fearful of losing seats under the new electoral law, they want to quash any opposing narratives that may subvert their hold on power. Media and rights organizations report that elites are engaging in vote buying, using control of ministerial posts to promote their own electoral lists, violating campaign finance regulations, and taking bribes. Some voters have reportedly been threatened to be fired or been promised better jobs by elites if they comply. In recent weeks, elites and their affiliates are also increasingly resorting to physical intimidation and harassment of non-establishment candidates who do not have the means to fight back against larger parties.
Hezbollah critic and parliamentary candidate Ali al-Amin was violently attacked on April 22, allegedly by Hezbollah supporters, while hanging campaign posters in the south. Hezbollah denied any involvement. On April 16, supporters of the Sunni Future Movement allegedly stormed MP hopeful Nabil Badr’s office in Beirut while policemen stood idly by. Future Movement affiliates also allegedly attacked MP hopeful Mohammed Al-Qadi and fired shots at the building where he had taken refuge with fellow candidate MP Raja al-Zuhairi.
Supporters of independent candidates in Mount Lebanon District 4, who asked not to be identified, said they were forced to cancel campaign events after affiliates of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) allegedly threatened physical harm if they did not. PSP affiliates also allegedly pressured a local business owner to fire an independent political activist’s parent in retaliation for the activist’s involvement in the campaign.1 Even some business owners who merely rent spaces to independent candidates have come under pressure to cut ties with them or face consequences. Mount Lebanon’s District 4 has the lowest electoral threshold proportionally, at 7.7 percent, making it a prime target for independents and a cause of concern for elites.
Fully democratic elections cannot happen without respect for the exercise of fundamental human rights. This includes individuals’ and political parties’ freedom to associate without unreasonable or arbitrary restrictions and discrimination. And the electoral environment should allow for political parties and candidate to campaign freely in all parts of the country.
Veteran pollsters say most seats are already decided, but some battles remain. Whoever wins on May 6, any push for genuine structural reforms will test the limits of Lebanon’s confessional democracy.
1. Interviews with author, April 25, 2018.