In a few weeks’ time, Lebanon’s fourth round of municipal elections since 1998 are scheduled to be held. This event highlights three key and interrelated challenges facing the country. The first is whether the ruling political elite will actually decide to hold municipal elections. If held, the second challenge concerns whether elected council members will adhere to a plan of action that addresses people’s local needs. The third challenge is getting people to vote for those who will serve them rather than those who will represent the interests of the political establishment. These issues are interlinked as political elites’ decisions on holding elections are not unrelated to their attempt to control the outcome, namely, getting their allies on municipal councils. In order to win the elections, first, alliances will have to be struck between parties and large families, often at the expense of any developmental programs or vision. Two, voters will be carried to the ballot box on a wave of sectarian and divisive discourse, undermining the element of accountability in voting.
Despite the fact that the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities is preparing for the election, the record of the political elite in respecting the constitution and upholding democratic rights is dismal. They have usurped power by postponing parliamentary elections twice in the last three years. Their inability to elect a president and the fact that they have paralyzed the work of the Council of Ministers only attests to the fact that they are not fit to rule.
While some parties tried to covertly postpone municipal elections, the decision to hold them is subject to weighing the cost of adopting one of two courses of action. The first involves political parties collectively agreeing to delay the election. However, this looks unlikely given that some parties, such as the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces, want the polls to go ahead so they can jointly flex their muscles following their historic agreement. Conversely, the Future Movement and Hezbollah do not want to hold municipal elections, yet neither of them will publicly reveal their true intentions or motivations in this regard. Not lost on any of these parties is that not holding the election will effectively bring political life to a halt, reverse reforms advanced by CSOs in bringing back municipal elections in 1998, and most importantly will be the epitome of mismanaging the country, particularly as even autocratic countries have managed to stage local elections. The second course of action would entail alliances being struck among political parties and large families—especially in rural areas—to assemble a joint list for municipal elections in the event elections go ahead as planned. Given that the cost of following the first course of action is far higher than the second, elections will most likely be held. After all, municipal elections in Lebanon are held not out of democratic conviction. Rather, holding local elections is the lowest price the elite will have to pay in order to ensure Lebanon’s political class can retain a shred of legitimacy in their efforts to maintain a grip on power across the country.
In reality, alliances that political parties form along with families and clans for joint electoral lists are hampering the role of municipalities as actors for development. This brings us to the second challenge, namely, the formation of joint lists to avoid competition. This has two consequences. The first is that many segments of society are not represented, especially women, youth, and marginalized groups, as sects and families and clans take precedence. Two, elections—even those which are competitive—often result in the elected council being an ineffective assemblage of interest groups with very little in common. They have no common program or platform to promote development nor the motivation to work together. Their aim is often confined to serving the interests of a narrow group that brought them to power while ignoring developmental issues. In other words, the political system has favored a select type of representation at the expense of forwarding the interests of citizens.
Some may counter that representation is important, as otherwise voters’ needs will not be addressed. In fact, this is not true. It is not representation that ensures better service delivery but rather accountability. LCPS confirmed such findings
in an earlier study where we show, using empirical evidence, that municipalities which are predominantly represented by a single sect do not provide more services than others.
The third challenge is mobilizing more citizens to exercise their voting rights so they choose representatives that will act in their interest and be held accountable. This process has been largely undermined in the following way: First, many voters exhibit very strong apathy toward elections, largely as a result of wheeling and dealing by a political elite that simply ignores their needs. In fact, only 20% of eligible voters cast ballots in the last election in Beirut. Two, many of those that do vote are dependent on clientelistic political networks or they fear that if they do not, other sectarian groups will infringe on their lives by taking more political power. Among other factors, including the perceived lack of any alternative, voters reinforce the status quo by voting for those who instill fear by vowing to represent the interests of a sect or faction, all at the expense of accountability.
The way elections are managed, starting from the uncertainty of holding them on time to attempts to control the outcome by elites, has been detrimental to any developmental work municipalities can and must do. What Lebanon needs is more than municipal elections. We need new political parties that provide alternatives, parties that compete on programs and ideas, parties that represent society beyond narrow sectarian cleavages, including the interests of women, youth, and those who are less privileged. We need parties that can work together. We need parties that provide hope rather than instill fear. Above all, we need citizens to hold their officials accountable by sending them home via the ballot box.