Elections bring a breath of fresh air to Lebanese politics
Lebanon’s May 2022 election brought a glimmer of hope into a political system long characterised by deadlock, corruption and unwillingness to tackle the country’s many problems. Channelling the power of a mass protest movement that burst to life in 2019, a string of independent candidates won seats, challenging the traditional sectarian distribution of power. Not only are they making demands for profound economic and political change; they are also younger, more female and more diverse than established politicians. The independents will face many obstacles in trying to seek change at the parliamentary level, but their election could mark the start of a positive new direction in Lebanese politics.
Understandably, around half of voters stayed at home when Lebanon’s general election took place on 15 May. Many who did cast a vote felt understandably little enthusiasm. For years, their country has been notorious for factionalism, political gridlock and economic dysfunction at the hands of self-serving and corrupt political elites. Would things be any different this time?
But for once, the results offered some hope. This was the first election after the nationwide uprising that started in 2019, when protests at economic hardship became demands for fundamental political change. A youthful protest movement has kept up the pressure ever since. As a result of the election, it now has a voice in parliament. Several new parliamentarians won their seats by speaking to the discontent previously expressed on the streets.
These new voices have political agendas that are very different from those of traditional ruling parties: they call for a new, more accountable governance system and for women’s rights, among other issues.
The results dealt a blow to the ruling alliance and more generally to the political establishment, as several longstanding parliamentarians lost to fresh faces. The alliance led by the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah party lost its majority, falling three seats short of the number required to control parliament. Though Hezbollah itself did not lose any seats, losses by its key allies dealt it a major blow.
The election took place in a context of continuing economic strife, with high inflation and a shortage as essentials such as fuel and medicine leaving millions struggling. The COVID-19 pandemic was just one among several crises that exposed the government’s ineptitude. The catastrophe of the 2020 Beirut port explosion, caused by government dysfunction and corruption, and the fact that its investigation continues to be blocked by the same forces responsible for it, were still very much on many voters’ minds.
The election also took place in a context of restricted civic space, with limitations on the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly weighing heavily on the prospects of healthy, fair and equitable democratic competition.
A different kind of diversity
Lebanon’s governance system is innately sectarian: it rests on a power-sharing arrangement among religious groups, with key posts designated for people from different groups and major political parties organised on faith lines. It has succeeded in avoiding open religious conflict, but has also enabled extraordinary patronage and corruption, and led to patchwork, deadlocked governments with little accountability. The many groups favoured by this arrangement have systematically resisted attempts at reform, and the system has drifted increasingly further away from people’s concerns.
But while the structure of parliament embodied a diversity of faiths, it failed to recognise all the other forms of diversity. Women have long been outrageously underrepresented. Women only won the right to vote in 1953, and had to wait a decade further to have their right to run for office recognised. Only 17 women have served in parliament since. At the previous election in 2018, 86 female candidates stood, but only six were elected, accounting for just five per cent of the seats.
LGBTQI+ people are even more underrepresented. No out LGBTQI+ politician has ever been elected to office, and parties and officeholders rarely recognise LGBTQI+ issues. Some change came in the context of the 2018 election, when 100 candidates made an unprecedented call for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Following long-term civil society advocacy and litigation, in July 2018 a court issued a ground-breaking ruling stating that consensual sex between same-sex adults is not a crime.
LGBTQI+ groups such as Helem and Meem have continued to create visibility and try to normalise the presence of LGBTQI+ people in public life by organising public demonstrations, hosting lectures and running fundraisers. But LGBTQI+ groups have faced continual state harassment and backlash for holding events. In 2018 police arrested and detained Hadi Damien, the founder of Lebanon Pride, forcing the cancellation of the event.
Young people have also been historically shut out from government institutions, with the exception of those who happen to come from the country’s most powerful families. Political leaders commonly pass on their seats to their descendants. In the 2018 election, 31 seats were contested by a child of the outgoing representative of that constituency. This meant that fresh faces in parliament did not necessarily mean a renewal of politics.
But the 2022 election saw more women and young people unrelated to incumbents elected than ever before. This reflected the diversity of the protest movement, in which women and young people took the centre stage to defy a system that did not speak to their concerns, connecting across sectarian divides. Now they have a chance to make a difference.
Politics with a fresh face
In 2022, 118 women ran for political office, the highest ever number and a 37 per cent increase on 2018. Eight were elected. One, Paula Yacoubian, was first elected as an independent in 2018 and retained her seat, after being recognised as one of the most productive members of parliament.
This is progress, but women’s representation still remains extremely low: a mere 6.25 per cent of members of parliament are women, compared to a global average of 26.2 per cent. Now 9.38 per cent of Lebanese members of parliament are under 45, compared to 30 per cent globally – but there are still none under 30. These are steps forward, but from a very low baseline.
The biggest breakthrough was not that more young people were elected, but that gains were made by young people not running as candidates of establishment parties. Younger voters, mobilised by protest, helped propel 13 independents into parliament, making up one tenth of the National Assembly.
Although LGBTQI+ people did not make similar gains, their visibility and public sympathy for LGBTQI+ rights has grown. The protest movement embraced diversity. The phrase ‘all means all’, calling for equal rights for LGBTQI+ people, became a common refrain.
Voices from the frontline
Lina Abou Habib is director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.
Despite taking place in an extremely complicated, uncertain and turbulent political and economic context, the process resulted in the election of many new independent candidates coming from civil society and calling for change. These new voices have political agendas that are very different from those of traditional ruling parties: they call for a new, more accountable governance system and for women’s rights, among other issues. These agendas include road maps for overcoming the ongoing deep economic crisis. And most importantly, they focus on how to stop the political race to the bottom that’s been happening in Lebanon.
Most of the independent candidates who were elected are linked to the 17 October protests, the uprisings that took place in 2019, when people clearly said they had enough of the political elite that had become – and continues to be – outrageously corrupt. The 17 October Revolution was a unique moment because protesters had such diverse, inclusive and feminist voices – feminist demands became an integral part of the political demands of the revolution. For instance, sexual harassment became a political issue because the voices of the LGBTQI+ community and migrant women domestic workers were also represented. No demand was compromised or put aside.
By that time, it became clear to us what system of governance we aspired to. It must be based on equality, inclusion, diversity and respect for human rights. The revolution also gained momentum because the same thing was happening in Chile and other countries where people were rising up. Hence, I do not exaggerate when I say that the feminist voices of the 17 October Revolution inspired political participation in the 2022 election.
This is an edited extracted of our conversation with Lina. Read the full interview here.
Campaigning for success
Outsider campaigns combined a wide range of tactics to breach the fortress of the Lebanese political establishment.
So-called apolitical young people – young people not active in any political group – also mostly leaned towards voting for new independent opposition groups. They also encouraged those around them to do the same, which boosted the opposition movement.
Grassroots organising, with young people leading the way, was key. Students who were themselves too young to vote established Mada, a network of secular student-led clubs, to coordinate campaigning activities. These included door-to-door flyer distribution, workshops to train new candidates and public meetings where candidates were introduced to and interacted with voters. Within universities, student clubs were instrumental in bringing supporters of the new movement together, while many young people used social media to share information about candidates and the election process in a language and format that resonated with their peers.
This organising style played a significant role on election day. Many young people volunteered as poll watchers with the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, an independent observer organisation, to minimise the potential for fraud.
As in the protest movement, diverse groups came together to support the independents’ campaign. They included feminists, LGBTQI+ people, migrant workers and young people who defy sectarian identities.
Alliances were also important to help independent candidates overcome entry barriers that normally make professional politics an elite enterprise, including the steep cost of filing a candidacy and the requirement to present several candidacies together as a list.
Independent candidates spoke to the same issues raised time and again in protests: corruption, the rising cost of living and general dissatisfaction with an ineffective and self-serving ruling class.
Voices from the frontline
Marwan Issa is a research assistant with the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.
There are plenty of youth-led political groups in Lebanon, but the main one is Mada. The first secular clubs were formed in universities as an alternative to the domination of ruling class parties on campus and started to take part in university student council elections. Over the past few years, these secular clubs won more than two-thirds of the seats in student council elections, breaking the hegemony of traditional political parties. As a result, they have paved the way for a new type of discourse on and outside campuses. Now the network has 21 clubs throughout the country – not just in universities but also in unions and regions – and continues to have a clear youth-led political discourse.
In preparation for the election, Mada engaged in negotiations with other groups to form coalitions. In Beirut, Mada members were active in the creation of Beirut Tuqawem (Beirut Resists), a grassroots participatory campaign that included individuals and groups from various progressive circles. Those volunteering in these campaigns were mostly university students working alongside other Mada members who were a bit older – but still young, around 25 on average.
Mada members were also active in launching campaigns in other parts of Lebanon, including al Janoub Youwajeh (The South Confronts), Jil al Teghyir (The Generation of Change) and the 17 October Coalition.
So-called apolitical young people – young people not active in any political group – also mostly leaned towards voting for new independent opposition groups. They also encouraged those around them to do the same, which boosted the opposition movement. Had the voting age been 18 instead of 21, we could confidently say that the elections would have brought many more new faces to parliament.
This is an edited extracted of our conversation with Marwan. Read the full interview here.
Still far to go
An important step has been taken. The new, young independents have replaced several members of the discredited elite, but they remain in the minority. Lebanon’s governance will still be deeply resistant to change and the old political establishment remains very powerful. Even without a majority, the Hezbollah-allied bloc is still the biggest and maintains significant influence, particularly among the Shia population.
The new parliament is supposed to appoint a new prime minister and vote on a new president once the incumbent ends his term in October. There’s also an economic crisis to address. But yet more deadlock is possible, and more opportunities for corruption and patronage will result.
The challenges for the new group will be to stick together and try to make some kind of impact in these very difficult conditions, where institutions have decades of practice in blocking change. The risks are clear – of being co-opted and absorbed by the system, of downplaying radical demands, including demands for the rights for excluded groups. in the hope of making deals to unlock some kind of progress. The danger is of disappointing the people who invested hope in them – and in doing so discrediting the very idea that change is possible.
The new group of independents shouldn’t be seen as the final hope of democracy in Lebanon, but rather as the potential start of a change of direction. The need is to build on this. Many more of their kind need to be elected at the next election in order to give Lebanon’s politics the radical shake-up it needs. At the same time, the protest movement needs to keep maintaining the street pressure for the change the establishment has failed to deliver.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The newly elected independent members of parliament should support each other, resist co-optation and continue to pursue their core demands.
The government should reduce the barriers to entry into public office to facilitate more diverse representation, including from more women, young people and LGBTQI+ people.
The protest movement should maintain pressure on all members of parliament for economic and political change.
Cover photo by REUTERS/Aziz Taher via Gallo Images