Record number of women brace for tough fight in Lebanese elections
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An unprecedented 86 female candidates are running in Sunday’s Lebanese parliamentary elections, the country's first since 2009. But can they break through what has hitherto been a veritable male bastion?
Dressed in an all-black pantsuit, Carole Babikian takes her place in a lineup of candidates onstage at a campaign rally in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
The group includes some heavyweight male candidates from Lebanon’s major political parties, all of them vying for parliamentary seats in the May 6 Lebanese general elections.
After many delays – with parliament having unconstitutionally extended its term three times, citing the security situation and problems with the electoral law – the country is finally holding its first general elections in nearly a decade.
With just days to go before the big event, Babikian’s Beirut 1 electoral list is pulling out all the stops for this rally in the Ashrafieh district of the Lebanese capital. A live band accompanies a choral group belting out rousing Arabic songs as a flag-waving crowd of supporters sing along to the familiar tunes.
The cheering rises as some of the better-known figures from the major political parties deliver their speeches, emphatically waving their arms as they exceed the minute-and-a-half slot assigned to the eight candidates on the Beirut 1 list.
When Babikian, an independent candidate, finally takes the microphone, her greeting is barely audible. Her fellow candidates rush to adjust the microphone and she starts again. “Bonsoir,” she says in French before continuing, “I’m Carole Noura Khatchig Babikian,” this time in Arabic.
The 55-year-old community activist and first-time parliamentary candidate keeps her message focused and within her assigned time. “I will be the voice of the women in parliament, to enable them to improve their rights. I will be the voice of the young people who dream of staying in Lebanon and building their lives. And I will be a salvo against the corruption in our political system.”
Babikian is part of a new wave of women running in the upcoming elections, an unprecedented 86 female candidates vying for a place in the 128-seat Lebanese parliament, which has remained a stronghold of male dominance.
This year, a record 113 women submitted their candidacy, of which 86 were selected on electoral lists under Lebanon’s complicated proportional representation system.
The upsurge in female parliamentary hopefuls in the 2018 race is marked compared to previous election years. Only 12 female candidates ran for office in 2009, and their number was a paltry four in 2005.
Women everywhere, but not in politics
Babikian and her fellow female candidates are products of an extraordinary mobilisation effort by civil society organisations such as Women in Front, a Beirut-based NGO that aims to address the country’s abysmal female representation in politics.
Despite its free press, robust civil society and cultural diversity that makes Lebanon a liberal outpost in the Arab world, the country ranks surprisingly low when it comes to gender parity in politics. With just four female MPs, Lebanon currently ranks 185th out of 193 countries, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) index.
“You can see Lebanese women in business, medicine, law, in virtually every field. But you can’t find women in parliament or government – except if she’s the wife, sister or daughter of a former president, prime minister or political leader,” explains Nehmat Badreddine, an activist-turned-parliamentary candidate.
The four female MPs in the outgoing parliament include former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s sister, Bahia Hariri, and Strida Geagea, wife of leading Lebanese politician, Samir Geagea. The other two parliamentarians also hail from Lebanese political dynasties.
From a conservative southern city to national politics
Badreddine’s background, in sharp contrast, is a world away from the one inhabited by the Beirut-based political heirs, as they have been sardonically dubbed.
Born and raised in the southern Lebanese city of Nabatieh, the 37-year-old activist is a member of Lebanon’s majority Shiite community, which has the lowest percentage of female political representation in the country. “I’m from a conservative family, not rich,” she stresses. “During my university years, I could go to the university and be active. But once I came back home, I had to stay at home – no meetings, no events, just stay at home.”
Much has changed since her university days. During a 2015-2016 protest campaign against a major garbage crisis in Beirut, Badreddine shot into the national spotlight when she was arrested and beaten up by the police. After all these years of activism, including much-publicised debates on national television, Badreddine says her immediate family now supports her bid in Sunday’s elections.
But while relatives have come to terms with her public profile, Badreddine’s community and region are still not quite ready for her political ambitions.
Although she hails from Nabatieh, Badreddine is not running in the southern Lebanese district, which is a stronghold of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amaal parties. Since none of the political parties or electoral lists for her district would have her as a candidate, she is standing for election in the Beirut II (West Beirut) district.
Badreddine has made a virtue of necessity. “I am from Nabatieh, but I will not represent Nabatieh or the Shiite people. This is a national election, not a municipal election. I represent all the Lebanese people,” she says defiantly.
New law complicates a flawed electoral system
The push to hold the much-delayed general elections, coupled with the 2015 mobilisation against the garbage crisis and the 2016 municipal elections, had sparked hopes that the 2018 race would reinvigorate a moribund national political scene.
But with just days to go before the May 6 vote, those dreams seem to belong to another era.
The security situation in this tiny tinderbox sandwiched between a hostile Israel, war-torn Syria and the Mediterranean is almost perennially on a knife edge.
A new electoral law passed last year institutes a proportional representation system that theoretically should have granted Lebanese voters greater representation and a chance to bypass the endemic elitism under the old system.
In reality though, the 2017 electoral law – which was the product of a compromise between the major political parties – is so complicated, it has baffled most voters.
While experts debate the pros and cons of the new system, they all agree it will change nothing. Lebanon’s antiquated confessional system – which divides power between the country’s religious communities – remains unchanged. The 2017 electoral law has merely enabled the old political players to form opportunistic alliances that will maintain the country’s longstanding balance of power.
Trapped by the entrenched system, civil society groups have ended up losing some of their leading figures to traditional political forces. Some of them even chose to ally themselves with members of the same political class they had rallied against.
Babikian, for example, is running for the Armenian Orthodox seat in the Beirut I district, which includes Nadim Gemayel – the son of former Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel – who is running for the Maronite seat in the district.
The East Beirut district has eight seats in the Lebanese parliament, split proportionately between the different religious groups in the area. While Gemayel is almost certain to win the Maronite seat, Babikian is running for one of three Armenian Orthodox seats against the Tashnaq party, an entrenched Armenian political party that traces its roots back to 1890.
Meanwhile, an attempt to secure a 30 percent quota for women in parliament under the new electoral law failed when Hezbollah members walked out of the session.
“For us, the woman is a woman… She has a home. She is a mother and must bring up generations. This takes a lot of the woman’s time,” Hezbollah member Rima Fakhry told reporters earlier this year.
The Shiite political movement has no female candidates in the 2018 race.
‘No going back now’
The failure to push through quotas has had a sobering effect on even the most ardent Lebanese champions of female political representation.
When asked if she was optimistic about the outcome of Sunday’s vote for the many female candidates she helped train over the past six years, Joëlle Abu Farhat Rizkallah – one of the founders of Women in Front – was surprisingly candid. “Actually no, if I have to be honest,” she replied. “This law is very discriminatory. Had the new law included a quota, we could have reached our goal.”
But Rizkallah is not one to despair. “Despite this, I think that with such a large number of female candidates, we can carry on and build on this momentum. In this election, with all the challenges the female candidates have faced, we will have many lessons to learn.”
It’s a spirit of determination Laury Haytayan – an oil and gas expert running on the Kulluna Watani civil society list – echoes. “Even if we win just one or two seats, this is a huge victory. It means we’re starting to shake up the system,” she says.
The 42-year-old mother of two is dismissive of critics who say the novice female candidates do not have what it takes to make it into Lebanese politics. As an energy sector expert, Haytayan has extensive experience advising parliamentarians on resource management and anti-corruption measures. She has little patience for critics who cite the lack of political experience among the new crop of Lebanese female candidates. “Inexperienced in what? In corruption? In clientelism? That’s true. I must admit I have no experience in this and I’m proud of it,” she quips.
She’s also appreciative of her fellow female candidates, including the ones, such as Babikian, that she’s competing against.
“I know all of them,” says Haykayan with a smile. “There is a feeling of solidarity even if we’re competing against each other. It’s because we’re all experienced professional women asking voters to vote for women. I feel the cause of women’s representation is above everything else. There is a higher principle that we all have.”
Despite the tremendous odds facing her political sisters in Sunday’s vote, Haykayan remains upbeat. “We have a new political platform and if one of us gets inside parliament, we then quickly organise ourselves and start working,” she says. “If we don’t, we have four years to put things in place. Our plan B from May 7 will be to start working on 2022. There’s no going back now.”