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Hezbollah’s arms, political dynasties: Why Lebanon’s polls do not spell change

Joseph Eid, AFP | A man stands in front of portraits of candidates for Lebanon's parliamentary elections in a Sunni Muslim neighbourhood of the Lebanese capital Beirut on May 4, 2018.

After nearly a decade and three postponements, Lebanese voters on Sunday are finally electing a new parliament. But a new electoral law has not changed old entitlements and divides, and a real change is not on the cards.

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At a campaign rally just days before polls were set to open in Lebanon’s much-anticipated parliamentary elections, Nadim Gemayel was working up a home crowd in Beirut’s Christian-dominated Ashrafieh district with the familiar rhetorical treats.

“You want water? You want electricity? You want hope? You want human rights? You want women’s rights? Then vote for Beirut 1,” he said, referring to his electoral list of eight candidates in the 2018 race.

Having set up his opening act, the 36-year-old scion of one of Lebanon’s best-known political families then went in for the kill.

Pumping his fist in the air – just as his father, former Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel did in his heyday – the young Gemayel continued: “Vote for your sovereignty against those who wear black,” he thundered. “Hezbollah is controlling everything in this country, but not parliament. This is the real comeback we seek, not just water, not just electricity, not just human rights, not just women’s rights. We seek them all… and sovereignty.”

Gemayel, who is standing for reelection this year, was addressing the contentious issue of Hezbollah’s weapons and the crowd was lapping it up, erupting into cheers while thrusting flags and banners into the air.

The Lebanese Shiite movement was the only militia that was allowed to keep its weapons after the 1975-90 civil war since Hezbollah maintained the arms were needed to defend Lebanon from Israeli aggression. Following the 2000 Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, however, there have been frequent calls for Hezbollah to put its arsenal under the control of the Lebanese state. They have met with no success.

As an MP for one of Lebanon's major Christian parties, the Kataeb, also known as "the Phalange", Gemayel’s call for Hezbollah to give up its weapons was in line with the national ideology of his party.

It’s not a topic Laury Haytayan – an independent candidate standing for election for the very first time on a civil society list – focused on during her campaign.

An oil and gas expert, Haytayan is among an unprecedented wave of women candidates who are running for the May 6 elections in a bid to address Lebanon’s abysmal female representation in parliament. The outgoing 128-seat Lebanese parliament had only four women MPs. This year, a record 86 women candidates are vying for parliamentary seats.

>> Read more: Record number of women brace for tough fight in Lebanese poll

At a café in downtown Beirut, Haytayan sighed when asked about critics who accuse her fellow civil society candidates of failing to address major national security issues such as Hezbollah’s military arsenal.

“Look, we are all against Hezbollah’s weapons, that’s clear. But the truth is, Hezbollah will never be dissolved without an international consensus,” she explained. “Should I be focused on this issue that I have no control over? I’m interested in the electricity problem, the tax system, housing prices, corruption, transparency, resource management…The politicians want you to focus on this issue [Hezbollah’s weapons] because they want you to forget their own track record.”

After nine years – a period during which parliament unconstitutionally extended its term three times – Lebanon is finally going to the polls Sunday in an election that will gauge whether the country is ready for change, or if that’s just the hopes of a section of the population privileged enough to dare to dream.

A new law with flaws

Expectations for a fundamental change are low as more than 3.6 million registered voters are set to choose from 583 candidates across 15 electoral districts (within these are 27 sub-districts).

A new electoral law passed in June 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 electoral law – which was the product of a compromise between the major political parties – is so complicated, it has baffled most voters.

The law enables each voter to cast his or her ballot for one of the competing electoral lists and then entitles them to cast one preferential vote for a candidate on the same chosen list.

“The new law was supposed to introduce a proportional representation system, which has long been a demand of Lebanese civil society. However it was perverted by amendments within the law. They [the major political parties] chose to give voters a preferential vote within lists. They also chose a preferential role within smaller districts that are often homogeneous, which means it’s a majoritarian system disguised as a proportional one,” explained Karim Emile Bitar, senior fellow at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) and international relations professor at the Beirut-based St. Joseph University.

‘A reproduction of the current elites’

Meanwhile the critical problem of Lebanon’s antiquated, colonial-era 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 based not on a shared ideology or platform, but on a cynical bid to make it into parliament.

The result, according to most experts, is that the new system is likely to maintain the country’s longstanding balance of power. “In all likelihood, the elections will see a reproduction of the current elites. There are likely to be very few surprises,” explained Bitar.

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.

Warlords and feudal lords playing the democratic game

The new electoral rules have also created fault lines within Lebanon’s enduring political dynasties – on top of the existing sectarian divides.

With some candidates and factions competing against each other on the same electoral list, the 2018 campaign has seen brothers competing for the same seat, a son pitted against his father, cousins squabbling for power, and in-laws locked in dead-heat electoral battles.

The family names of many of these candidates have dominated Lebanon’s politics and internecine wars for decades. Political dynasties such as the Gemayels, Jumblatts and the Frangieh have seen second- and third-generation scions dominating the national political scene.

“Many young, liberal, progressive Lebanese are dismayed over why so many voters are still attached to the remnants of feudal families,” acknowledged Bitar. “However in Lebanon, there have been a considerable series of political assassinations, which produce waves of sympathy. The son, widow or sister of the assassinated person tries to pursue his legacy and are seen as continuing the struggle that was unfairly stopped.”

Outside Beirut and the major Lebanese cities, descendants of feudal families with vast landholdings dating back to the Ottoman era have adapted to the modern, democratic times using a system of economic patronage in exchange for electoral loyalty.

>> Read more: Lebanon’s modern zaims, or feudal lords-turned-candidates

Hezbollah threats and Shiite intimidation

The failure of the Lebanese state to address wealth disparities or provide services has seen those historically marginalised stick with either modern-day feudal overlords or sectarian groups such as Hezbollah, who hold their Shiite constituency in an iron grip.

The few independent Shiite candidates running against Hezbollah in the group’s southern Lebanese heartland this year complained of systemic harassment and intimidation by the group. A prominent Shiite journalist-candidate made the national headlines when he was beaten up by “Hezbollah thugs”.

>> Read more: Attack on anti-Hezbollah candidate exposes splits among Lebanese Shiites

Despite the bad press and its involvement in the war in Syria, which is draining the Lebanese Shiite community, Hezbollah and its Shiite ally, Amal, are expected to sweep the Shiite vote in Sunday’s poll.

Lokman Slim, a prominent Lebanese Shiite anti-Hezbollah activist, notes that a “Shiite malaise” compels many community members to refrain from criticising the movement that has empowered Lebanon’s historically marginalised Shiites.

“There’s a big fear of losing what we have gained through Hezbollah and Amal, and we don’t want to be engaged in a new civil war and lose what we have gained,” explained Slim.

While Lebanon – and the international community – will have to wait until Monday for the results of the vote, analysts say Hezbollah is likely to be a big winner in the 2018 race if the movement succeeds in mobilising its supporters to go out and vote.

“Unfortunately,” concluded Slim, “I think that on May 7, we will have a parliament controlled by Hezbollah legions and the balance of power in Lebanon will remain unchanged.”

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