Last summer, gas masks were a common sight on the streets of Beirut. But residents weren’t wearing the masks to protect themselves from a chemical attack or toxic pollution; rather, they were to combat the stench of a quickly growing pile of garbage. “We are coughing, we have allergies and there are mosquitoes and flies in our homes,” one Beiruti told the AP. With the 2015 closure of one of the city’s largest landfills, citizens were left with no functioning waste disposal system, and large heaps of garbage began to appear on roads, along river beds, and in nearby forests.
Many Lebanese have taken to the streets to protest the garbage crisis, but it is just one symptom of a governing elite that many citizens feel have lost touch with the people’s concerns. Lebanese politics are, by design, rife with sectarianism; top politicians have continually used their status for personal gain; over the past six years, parliamentary elections have twice been unconstitutionally postponed due to the fear of political tensions escalating to sectarian violence. To top it off, Lebanon has been without a president since 2013. Beirut’s garbage problem cast light on a government that has preoccupied itself with political distractions, while remaining largely apathetic to the grievances of the people it represents.
But finally, this May, Lebanese voters turned out for the first municipal elections—or any elections—since 2009, and the results were a blow to the status quo. Elections in the northern city of Tripoli ushered in a majority of candidates from a roster backed by a political outsider, and a grassroots movement in Beirut posed an unexpected threat to the political establishment. These municipal elections may not have solved any of Lebanon’s long-term policy problems, but they were a step forward for a population frustrated with poor public administration—the type that lets poisonous levels of garbage pile up on street corners. Rather than being reduced to sectarian conflict—which would have given the government an excuse to postpone voting once again—Lebanese voters used the ballot to make themselves heard, showing public officials that they are ready to once again resume the political schedule.
Sectarian from the Start
Politics in Lebanon were indelibly affected by the country’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990 and caused around 150,000 deaths. The factionalism that triggered the conflict—and still informs Lebanese politics—reaches far back into the country’s history. From 1920 to 1943, Christians were granted disproportionate governmental representation by colonial authorities—a source of much discontent within the Muslim community. As demographics shifted in favor of the Muslim population, an armed conflict eventually erupted between Lebanese Christians and Palestinians, with other factions and regional powers picking sides.
At the end of the fighting, militias were dismantled, but nothing could dissolve the tensions that had been magnified by the war. Today, sectarianism still remains the most influential force in Lebanese politics, and parliamentary seats are distributed according to confession, with proportionate representation for Sunnis, Shiites, and the country’s various Christian sects. While this allocation helps keep the peace, it also makes cooperation between factions difficult and has recently been the subject of many popular protests, chiefly in the capital of Beirut.
This sectarianism is a primary cause of the political stasis the country has faced since 2013, when parliamentary elections were originally scheduled to occur. The decision to postpone the vote came amidst escalating sectarian tensions largely related to the civil war in neighboring Syria. There were also disagreements within parliament about proposals to reorganize electoral districts and move from a winner-take-all to a proportional representation system (there were concerns that the changes would disproportionately benefit one sectarian coalition over another). Disagreements like these led the 2009-elected parliament to unconstitutionally extend its own term, postponing parliamentary and presidential elections first until 2014 and then 2017. Lebanon’s failure to remain electorally on schedule has called into question its ability to function as a state. “We can no longer tolerate this sick reality the country is living in,” said Ali Hamade, a writer for Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar. However, if this May’s municipal elections are any indication, the country may be on the verge of positive change.
Ballots for municipal elections in Lebanon are not unlike those in the United States—often populated by a few names the public know but many more that they don’t. To help voters navigate a complicated sectarian political system, it is common for established politicians to put together political “lists” of candidates for a predetermined number of city council seats. This is especially helpful because voters go into the voting booth with a blank sheet that they must fill in by hand, and it’s unsurprisingly hard to remember 21 different names. A prewritten list is easy to scan—if a voter sees mostly names he knows and likes, he can simply choose to vote for the whole list, thinking that he’d be likely to agree with the rest of the candidates, too. Lebanese voters do not need to vote for whole lists, but their votes are often informed by the candidates who appear on a given list, as well as by the politicians who back each list.
Unsurprisingly, municipal elections are tailored to local issues rather than national ones. Politicians with regional influence can put together lists that appeal to the demographics of a single city, rather than the entirety of Lebanon’s diverse population. In order to promote themselves on the national stage, by contrast, higher-level politicians must often play to the various concerns of Lebanon’s diverse factions. But such inclusive lists with broad representation often fail to capture the hearts of local constituents.
That’s what occurred on May 29, in the fourth and final round of Lebanese municipal elections in the northern city of Tripoli. There, the pioneer of change was former justice minister Ashraf Rifi, who recently resigned after clashes with the political establishment—particularly former prime minister Sa’ad Hariri—over the power of Hezbollah in the national government. After his resignation, without a national governmental position to protect, he could organize a list of candidates for Tripoli’s municipal offices that did not have pan-factional appeal. “Ashraf Rifi … knows how to appeal to the street in northern Lebanon,” Dr. Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told the HPR. Called Tripoli’s Choice, the list won an 18/24 majority of council seats against one backed by Hariri, two other former prime ministers, and several billionaires.
According to Dr. Khashan, the outcome of these municipal elections is “indicative of the mood in Lebanon … The Lebanese people … are fed up with the establishment … People want change.” Additionally, the vote proved that Lebanon is capable of holding peaceful elections without devolving into riots or civil war—a very real fear for officials who postponed the 2013 elections over similar concerns. “Lebanese people showed their leaders, ‘we are capable of having elections without devolving into a violent disaster,’” Amanda Rizkallah, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Middle East Initiative, told the HPR. “The fact that municipal elections were held tells us that parliamentary elections can be held,” Dr. Khashan said. The outcome reflected a Tripoli so frustrated by the norm that rejecting the establishment was the only option.
Beirut, My City
The Lebanese capital city of Beirut saw a similar phenomenon. There, an underdog list of candidates claimed a shocking 40 percent of the vote this this past May. While not enough to win, it was a symbolic victory for a group of self-organized, inexperienced, and secularly minded candidates. The list, called Beirut Madinati, meaning “Beirut, My City,” was mostly comprised of filmmakers, architects, songwriters, journalists, and other political outsiders, a far cry from the usual roster of highly partisan, sectarian candidates. Its vision for Beirut involved social reform, inclusivity, and sustainability. If elected, the candidates promised to improve walking and biking infrastructure, revise taxation structures to make housing more affordable, and implement a system of secondary sorting, reuse, and recycling—an especially appealing agenda item after the worst of the Beirut garbage crisis. But instead, control over the city went once again to a series of experienced but uncoordinated politicians with no clear vision for improving city services or infrastructure.
Although Beirut Madinati did not win against the established political class, it posed a real enough threat that its opposition had to band together to defeat it, crossing traditional political divisions. “Everybody ganged up on the new guys,” explained Rizkallah. “It exposed the fact that … when push comes to shove, they all want to protect the status quo,” not necessarily solve issues that matter to constituents. As in Tripoli, many Beirut voters felt neglected by the existing political class and used the municipal elections to seek representation elsewhere.
A Fresh Start
Perhaps Beirut and Tripoli are signs of a coming change in the way Lebanese politics operates. Voters seem to be looking less to traditional, sectarian ways of choosing representatives. Beirut Madinati’s supporters broke ranks to vote against the establishment Sunni candidates. “Many Sunnis were able to say that ‘yeah, he’s a Sunni,’ but that doesn’t mean I have to support him,” said Rizkallah. A majority of voters also came out against the established elite in Tripoli, rejecting a list with high-profile establishment backing.
On the other hand, according to Dr. Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University, the winds of change may not be as strong as they appear. Ultimately, sectarianism is king, he told the HPR. In the parliamentary elections, “Lebanese people will be voting for sectarian groups or not voting at all.” Lesser-known parliamentary candidates lack the organization, funding, and big-name political backing to stand a real chance against at the national level, he argued. The small scale of municipal contests allows underdogs to carve out niche followings, but to win on the big stage, candidates need bigger bases. Sectarianism alignment often does the trick.
Sectarian or not, though, it is clear that parliamentary elections are long overdue. There have already been two postponements due to regional instability and sectarian divisions, and another one would likely only increase tension and further destabilize the country. Especially for the ruling political class that “want[s] to protect the status quo,” in the words of Rizkallah, further postponements may actually feed voter frustration and undermine establishment power, strengthening the appeal of nontraditional options like Beirut Madinati. And the municipal elections have proven that Lebanon can handle an election without breaking into factional unrest.
On a national scale, Lebanon’s municipalities do not have obvious, meaningful influence. They lack the size and money to exercise many of the responsibilities devolved to them by the national government. And yet, the latest municipal elections have refreshed the country’s political climate. They were held peacefully and democratically, and showed a population that is ready to resume participation in a democracy that has been on pause since 2013. If all goes according to plan, Lebanon will finally hold its parliamentary elections in 2017, which may help inspire confidence in a population that has become increasingly disenchanted with its government.
Image Source: Wikipedia/Thylacin // Public Domain Images/Ben Barber, USAID