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On the upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon and the role of civil society

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Photo: Commitee of the Families of the Missing and Forcefully Disappeared

"For decades, Lebanon has seen an incredible variety of progressive political initiatives. But it always seems to me that all these initiatives are taking place underneath an iron blanket. There is no way to get beyond it; the same political elite has been sitting there for decades. So far, nobody has managed to break through this iron blanket."

This assessment of the Lebanese elite on the one hand and the diversity of progressive political and social forces on the other was given to me by a diplomat some years ago with whom I was exchanging information about my work at the time. While observing the recent months of campaigning for this Sunday’s upcoming parliamentary elections (set to take place on 6 May 2018), I often had to think back to this assessment and the impossibility of breaking through the “iron blanket”. In Lebanon, no parliamentary elections have taken place since 2009. The Lebanese parliament unilaterally renewed its mandate for a second term in 2014, allegedly due to the precarious security situation within the country.

This year’s elections are not only the first to be held in nine years, but are also the first to take place under the new electoral law decreed in June 2017, which, for the first time, will see the use of proportional representation. However, this new law is limited by both the confessional quota (which regulates the distribution of seats according to religious affiliation in each electoral constituency) and the introduction of preferential voting (which allows voters to select a preferred candidate from a list). This new electoral law, the prospect of finally changing an existing parliament after nine years, as well as a cautious mood of optimism among oppositional and progressive political forces in Lebanon (since the May 2016 local elections) have, over the past months, led to an electoral campaign in which various oppositional forces decided to run for office. This can be seen as a renewed attempt to breach the iron blanket – if only to challenge the old political elite by winning a few seats in parliament, and thus offering an alternative discourse and alternative political positions.

This decision had led to a heated election campaign which has, for the first time, seen the emergence of new actors beyond the existing political elite who have dominated the political stage in Lebanon for decades: on the one hand, this includes many political and social activists who thus far have been primarily active outside of political institutions, and representatives of opposition parties of a more or less progressive and left-wing nature on the other (for example, the Lebanese Communist Party). In the past months these initiatives have been collectively referred to as “civil society”, a term which alludes both to the fact that most of these actors’ political work originates from outside of the state-led political institutions, and that “civil society” in Lebanon is historically linked, in particular to oppositional and peace initiatives that took place during the civil war.

Without a doubt, the estimated 14 lists running this Sunday who claim to be in opposition to the ruling political parties in Lebanon stand as a challenge and an achievement which will continue to shape Lebanon’s political trajectory, irrespective of Sunday’s outcome. The challenge primarily lies in the fact that, since its independence, Lebanon rests on a more or less well-established political system of confessionalism, capitalism and clientelism – an interplay which has repeatedly collapsed due to violent conflicts and civil wars, only to be restructured during the aftermath. In addition, as a result of the ongoing civil war in neighbouring Syria, the high number of refugees seeking shelter in Lebanon as well as Hezbollah’s military interventions have put Lebanon under political strain in recent years both domestically and internationally. Another challenge is the fact that the reformed electoral law continues to protect the confessional system as well as the political elite, while encumbering the formation of independent lists. These are further restricted by the fact that the maximum financial expenditure for a candidate’s electoral campaign is among the highest in the world. Electoral campaigning in Lebanon is, therefore, mainly determined by how much money one can spend. This presents a further challenge, seeing as the country is in the middle of a profound economic crisis which leaves little room for an economic alternative to clientelism and neo-liberalism.

Regarding the lists which have formed as a progressive opposition or “civil society” alternative to the existing political system despite these challenges, this oppositional stance is still palpable across all lists. The main criticism of these lists coming from Lebanese civil society itself is that they lack a uniform or convincing political programme, and that candidates who are jointly running for office represent completely different positions. Moreover, many essential issues such as gender equality, the assurance of human and social rights for Lebanese citizens, migrants and refugees alike, the stance on the Syrian regime and Hezbollah as well as an economic alternative that goes beyond the demand for privatisation and a bail-out of the public sector are excluded. The different coalitions that have joined forces in most electoral constituencies under the name “Kulluna watani” (“We Are All the Nation”) thus appear as a conglomeration of various individual positions and political views, whereby candidates appear happy to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to certain topics. A consensus is primarily found in opposing the ruling system and presenting some form of political alternative.

As is so often the case in Lebanon, it is worth taking a look beyond the “iron blanket” and the existing attempts to break through it. Various initiatives that critically examine the parliamentary elections and the work of both parties of the political elite and of “civil society” are worth mentioning here: operating under the name “Mist3ideen” (“ready, prepared”), a group of critical activists has set itself the task of reviewing the lists of civil society candidates for compliance with various democratic values and standards. The results, which provide a clear overview of the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate’s position, were published on their website a few days ago. One week ago, political activist Sylvana Lakkis resigned from the Electoral Supervisory Committee, to which she had been appointed by the Cabinet.  She cited the interference of high-ranking politicians and ministries in the election campaign and in the work of the Committee as motivation, which made its independence and transparency impossible. In her position as Director of the “Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union”, Lakkis further launched the campaign “Our Rights”, which raises awareness of the inaccessibility of polling stations for the physically disabled. In addition, the campaign “One Vote for the Missing” led by the Committee for Families of Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon (CFKDL) draws attention to the yet unsolved cases of people who disappeared during the civil war, and the blanket of silence upheld by many politicians surrounding these war crimes.

Whether this weekend leads to the breaching or even weakening of this iron blanket, whether the underlying pressure will merely increase or whether the freedom above the iron blanket is, indeed, boundless – all of this remains to be seen this coming Sunday, and in the subsequent years of the new legislative period. Surely, however, the last months of the electoral campaign have already shown that when it comes to Lebanon’s iron blanket, progressive politics remain both conceivable and possible.