Prospects for Change in Lebanon’s Imperfect Political System

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Analysis: A diverse but fractured opposition faces an uphill battle to topple Lebanon’s entrenched sectarian elite.

The first parliamentary election since Lebanon’s uprising and financial collapse in 2019 is set to take place on May 15.

Ruling sectarian parties, which have succeeded in their counter-revolutionary efforts, are now contesting elections with the aim of consolidating their power and reproducing their shaken legitimacy.

A diverse but fractured opposition stands against them, aiming to restore hope to disillusioned voters who have seen their savings seized by the banking sector, their capital devastated by the Beirut port explosion and their revolutionary desire for political change thwarted over the past few decades. last two years. a year and a half.

Although the Lebanese regime presents itself as a representative and power-sharing democracy, its elections are far from free and fair.

“Sectarian ruling parties, which have succeeded in their counter-revolutionary efforts, are now standing for re-election with the aim of consolidating their power and reproducing their shaken legitimacy”

Like highlighted by the 2018 election, patronage practices, coercion and election fraud are still ubiquitous in the campaigns of sectarian parties.

Indeed, there is limited oversight and no accountability, as the body responsible for monitoring the elections – the Election Monitoring Commission (ECC) – lacks funding and, more importantly, the authority to prosecute violations. before the courts.

Spending limits are also not respectedmaking the electoral race much more difficult for anti-establishment groups who lack the financial and human resources to compete with the vote buying, media exposure and disinformation of their opponents.

The electoral law itself is also very flawed. Although the proportional representation (PR) system was introduced in the 2018 elections to improve democratic representation, it was designed by political elites to facilitate their renewal.

The system as a whole is notorious for its enforced denominational quotas, gerrymandering districts, and convoluted framework for determining the candidates elected to winning lists.

Despite all these realities, opposition groups still saw opportunities in the May 15 vote. The landscape of protesting actors had grown up dramatically since the last election, leading to widespread calls for groups to come together and pose a serious challenge to ruling parties.

The first parliamentary election since Lebanon’s uprising and financial collapse in 2019 is set to take place on May 15. [Getty]

Split lists and opposition

The main component of the Lebanese proportional electoral law is that it obliges candidates to stand on lists rather than individually. While many hoped that the opposition would present a united list in each district, it quickly became clear that this attempt would not be successful.

A main point of contention that has derailed these efforts is who the opposition includes and excludes.

The debate revolves around the advisability of allying with traditional parties which now claim to be opposition, such as Kataeb, but also with personalities such as Neemat Frem (candidate of Mount Lebanon 1 and former ally of the FPM) , or businessmen who have already done business with the regime, such as Waddah Sadek (candidate in Beirut 2).

“While anti-establishment groups are likely to perform better than they did four years ago, hopes of them forming a meaningful opposition bloc in parliament are dim”

For some opposition groups, these actors are worth allying with for pragmatic purposes, including their access to election funding. Others, however, view these alliances as a violation of principles, not only because of their involvement in the regime, but also because of their right-wing economic agenda.

Indeed, disagreement over pragmatic and principled approaches to forming alliances is compounded by disparities in agendas.

A recent study by The Policy Initiative shows that the positions of anti-establishment groups vary widely on a number of key issues. For example, the results reveal that some want politicians and bank shareholders to pay for all financial sector losses while raising taxes to fund a universal welfare program.

Meanwhile, others are calling for the privatization of state assets to protect the interests of the banking sector while relying on targeted and less costly welfare programs for big taxpayers.

Ultimately, these differences in approaches and programs have either led to the withdrawal of certain candidates, or to the constitution of competing opposition lists.

When the dust has settled, thirteen of the fifteen districts of Lebanon ended up with multiple lists claiming to represent the opposition movement.

Prospects and main battlefields

Despite all these challenges, the bright side of the opposition is that a handful of lists still have a chance of securing seats in parliament.

Beirut’s two constituencies are key battlegrounds to watch. Beirut 1 has the lowest electoral threshold, meaning it is the constituency where the opposition needs the fewest number of votes to win a seat.

The only protest candidate to have won a seat in 2018 – Paula Yacoubian – is a candidate for re-election on the LiWatani (For my Nation) list, but two other lists – Beirut Madinati (Beirut my City) and Qadreen (Able) of Citizens of a state – are also competing for the vote of opponents, which could hurt the chances of the three lists.

In Beirut 2, the Beirut al-Taghyir (Beirut Changer) list is deemed to have the best chance of breaking through, mainly due to the fact that the Future Movement – ​​the party of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri – will not run under its usual form. bastion. Beirut al-Taghyir is one of the few lists that managed to unite different opposition groups, including the National Bloc, Tahalof Watani, Al-Marsad Al-Shaabi and secular student clubs.

However, due to the inclusion of controversial candidates including the aforementioned Waddah Saddek, prominent groups like LiHaqqi and Madinati dropped out of the list. Citizens of a state, however, always run on a separate list (Qadreen) and actually run candidates in all fifteen districts of Lebanon, regardless of alliances.

The opposition also has a very good chance in Mont-Liban 4 (Chouf-Aley), which has the lowest threshold in terms of percentage of votes. The anti-establishment slate in 2018 nearly hit the threshold and Twahadna lil-Taghyir (United for Change) is expected to secure at least one seat this time around.

The composition of the Twahadna lil-Taghyir list resembles Beirut al-Taghyir insofar as the candidates do not necessarily endorse the same program but agree on basic principles and the need for pragmatic alliances. The list is also supported by the Kataeb party and the Lebanese Communist Party.

“Although the Lebanese regime presents itself as a representative and power-sharing democracy, its elections are far from free and fair”

Other districts where the opposition is deemed to have a fair chance include Mount Lebanon 2 (Metn) with the Nahwa al-Dawleh (Towards the State) list, Mount Lebanon 3 (Baabda) with the Baabda al- Taghyir (Baabda Change), North 3 (Bcharré-Koura-Zgharta-Batroun) with the Shamalula list (Our North) and South 3 (Nabatieh-Bent Jbeil-Marjaayoun-Hasbaya) with the Ma’an Nahwa al-Taghyir list (Together towards change).

While anti-establishment groups are certainly expected to perform better than they did four years ago, hopes of them forming a meaningful opposition bloc in parliament are dim. However, Lebanon’s prospects for change are not tied solely to its flawed electoral process.

The most pressing battle with the regime revolves around how to prevent the financial sector lobby from further socializing the cost of the country’s collapse.

While a resounding loss on May 15 could be a blow to the outlook for change, it could also be an important springboard for groups to change strategy, learn from past experiences and perhaps coalesce around a progressive program that can put pressure on the ruling class and the international community. community to act for the public good.

Nadim El Kak is a political sociologist who studies social movements, counter-revolutions and neoliberalism. He is currently based at The Policy Initiative, a newly created think tank in Beirut.

Follow him on Twitter: @NadimElkak


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