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Fresh faces but same old names in Lebanon election

© AFP | A picture taken on April 18, 2018 shows an electoral billboard of Lebanese Prime Minister and candidate for the upcoming parliamentary elections Saad Hariri (L) and his late father and former prime minister Rafic Hariri (R)

BEIRUT (AFP) - 

Fresh young faces may be campaigning to win a seat in Lebanon's parliament next month, but their family names are anything but new.

For decades the same families have played a pivotal role in the small Middle Eastern country, officially ruled by a parliamentary democratic system but where political power is still informally handed down through generations.

As Lebanon finally heads to the legislative polls after a nine-year hiatus, several candidates hail from a third -- or even fourth generation -- of the same political clans.

There are such cases in almost all of the 18 religious communities represented in Lebanon's complex confessional system.

Faced with accusations of "nepotism" and "feudalism", these sons and daughters of influential men have defended what they say is a genuine desire for reform.

Incumbent candidate Nadim Gemayel was elected a member of parliament in 2009, but politics have decades-old roots in his family tree.

He is the youngest son of late president-elect Bachir Gemayel, killed in 1982, and the grandson of Pierre Gemayel, who founded the Phalangist (Kataeb) Party in which Nadim is now a leading official.

"The reason I'm involved in politics is of course linked to Bachir's assassination and to the values that got him killed," says Gemayel.

"But it's also tied to my own frustration at seeing my country so badly managed," the 36-year-old says.

"Being someone's son is not necessarily something negative or anti-reform," he adds.

"New generations can bring to life projects that are in the public interest that were developed by their forefathers -- and adapt them to evolving times."

- 'Forged my own path' -

First-time candidate Zaher Eido rejects any accusations his surname might have "parachuted" him into circles of power.

He is running in Beirut just over a decade since his father, also a lawmaker, and older brother died in a car bomb in the capital.

"Sure, I may have inherited a political past, but I'm also interested in politics," says Zaher, who like his father is a member of the leading Future Movement.

The 44-year-old banker says he wants to apply his professional experience towards passing new legislation to fight money laundering.

"Over 11 years, I've forged my own path, built my own career and personality... And if I can't make things evolve, I'll resign," he pledges.

Eido and Gemayel are part of a familiar pattern in Beirut.

Michelle Tueini, 31, has already partially followed in the footsteps of her father Gebran as a journalist after he was assassinated in 2005.

She is now also running for parliament like him, taking over from her elder sister Nayla, a lawmaker for the past nine years.

The country's own prime minister Saad Hariri ascended to power after his father Rafik -- assassinated in 2005 -- held the post for years.

Hariri's campaign posters, plastered across Beirut, feature portraits of his father.

The list goes on: candidate Taymour Jumblatt is the child of Lebanon's Druze leader Walid and the grandson of Kamal, who founded the Progressive Socialist Party.

Tony Franjieh is the fourth generation of his political family: his great-grandfather Suleiman was elected head of state in 1970 and his own father was in the running for the presidency in 2016.

Even current President Michel Aoun's nephew and two sons-in-law are running for parliamentary office.

- 'Pseudo-feudalism' -

Fadia Kiwan, politics professor at the Saint Joseph University, says patriarchy and the cult of the leader are still largely ingrained in Lebanese society, which keeps hereditary politics in place.

While some families follow "strict centuries-old feudalism, a pseudo-feudal system has taken root in other communities since the emergence of modern Lebanon", she says.

Many of those who founded today's political dynasties once headed armed groups during Lebanon's civil war from 1975 to 1990.

Political power being handed down across generations has long angered scores of Lebanese voters, and rivals have taken note of their scorn.

Kulluni Watani, a reformist coalition, has put forward 70 candidates across the country that it pledges will break the pattern.

"Unfortunately, this blend of inherited power and nepotism applies to all political parties in power," says Wadih al-Asmar, a strategist for Kulluna Watani.

"It's simply unacceptable, whatever the abilities of those concerned," he says.

Slamming the current system as "sclerotic and out-of-breath," Asmar says Kulluna Watani's struggle "aims to give rise to a much more progressive and modern political era."

But Gemayel says change takes time.

"Lebanon's political system is not meritocratic, I've never pretended it is. It's a blend of cronyism and confessionalism," he admits.

"Traditional (political) families and parties must modernise so they don't miss the boat and end up forgotten," Gemayel tells AFP.

"But it cannot happen overnight."

© 2018 AFP