Despite its Loss at the Polls Beirut Madinati Provides Hope for Change
On 8 May 2016, Lebanon held its first round of municipal elections in Beirut and the Bekaa on time. In Beirut, the results were striking. Although the Beirutis list (referred to in Arabic as the Byerte’s list)—backed by the governing elite and led by former PM Hariri—won the election, the entrenched political class lost further legitimacy. By contrast, Beirut Madinati (BM)—a group of experts and activists competing in an election for the first time—lost at the polls but captured the heart and soul of citizens who believe real change is possible.
It is worth noting why this is a political victory. For one, a group of experts and activists who are largely amateurs in electoral politics managed to challenge fourteen governing parties and religious representatives at the polls. Two, voters have shown that they are willing to cast their ballots for an independent and largely unknown group of people running on a programmatic platform rather than on sectarian discourse or based on clientelistic networks.
BM and Citizens within a State—the alternative list led by former minister Charbel Nahas—have given a voice to supporters of alternative political candidates, who number more than many originally thought. Such ideas are not confined to the capital’s electoral boundaries. The idea of voting for an independent politician with a set policy agenda appealed to other parts of the country and even to the Lebanese diaspora. In fact, more than 500 people donated to BM’s campaign online. These groups are inspiring change in an oligarchical system that otherwise maintains a tight grip on power and control over who is allowed to enter politics.
Looking closely at the initial results, BM captured almost 32,000 out of 92,000 votes cast, just over one-third. It has managed to narrow the gap with the Beirutis list to only 7,000 votes. Given that the participation rate was nearly the same (a mere 2% increase) as 2010, the governing elite suffered a blow as their supporters declined from 62,000 votes in 2010 to 43,000 in 2016. This could be due to one or a combination of two factors: Many Beirutis supporters chose BM over the Beirutis list, or many of their supporters actually stayed home while BM managed to mobilize people who did not vote in 2010.
Focusing on specific districts, BM swept Beirut 1—comprising Ashrafieh, Rmeil, and Saifi—with 60% of votes cast. With no exit poll data on hand, this did not prevent political parties and media pundits from analyzing the results as they see fit. For instance, the loss of Beirut 1 to BM was interpreted purely from a political-sectarian prism, denying that there could be a socio-economic explanation or that voters are expressing deep frustration with the performance of the political elite. Worse yet, these analysts view voters as pawns to be traded by parties in the political marketplace. However, it was the capture of 37% of Beirut 3 voters—comprising Mazraa, Mseitbeh, Ras Beirut, Zukak El Blaat, Mina El Hosn, and Ain Mreisseh—who are predominantly Sunnis and from lower income brackets that dealt a blow to Hariri, since this is a direct threat to his political base.
BM’s success is largely due to their ability to face the enemy within. Most civil society initiatives tend to fizzle out or implode due to the failure of members to resolve internal conflicts. Some of these conflicts arise due to competing visions and strategies but sadly many stem from egos. BM survived this challenge largely due to an internal governance structure that helped resolve conflicts through a division of labor as well as a participatory mechanism of decision-making whereby it was required that key decisions be made according to a vote. Another key factor, invisible to many, that has contributed to BM’s success is the leading role of women. As much as it is thanks to the thousands of volunteers who helped in this initiative, it is important to acknowledge women’s roles in developing BM’s program and vision, in providing legal advice throughout the process, in formulating criteria for selecting BM candidates, in communicating BM to the wider public, and in holding the vote counters accountable during very long days before the official announcement of results, among other things.
Despite the relative successes of BM, election day demonstrated why there are still serious systemic problems with Lebanon’s voting system. While the government has finally respected the constitutional deadline and held municipal elections—which should nullify the rationale for not holding parliamentary elections due to security concerns—it has failed to effectively count votes. Despite millions of dollars invested in the electoral process over the last decade, in the last few days the system was shown to be archaic. The ru’asa aqlam (polling station chiefs) were not trained and used inefficient methods to tabulate votes. Worse yet, it was reported that some ballot boxes were transported in civilian cars, raising serious questions about the integrity of the system. Once at Biel, where the votes were aggregated, the system was so primitive that it took thirty-six hours just to count 92,000 votes. One could only speculate what would have happened had the participation rate been higher. This sheds light on larger issues that have been left unaddressed in our electoral system, leaving so much room for vote buying and vote rigging. For instance, every candidate has the right to have a mandoub (representative) present in each voting station and one mobile mandoub who can operate at three polling centers. The fact that this practice is commonly accepted and that mandubeen are paid for their full day of work, leaves ample room for vote buying. This was clearly witnessed in the notorious video shown by New TV showing citizens openly declaring they were registered as mandubeen, while in fact they effectively received money for voting for the Beirutis list. This is compounded by the fact that the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities chose not establish a supervisory committee for electoral campaigns to record violations. Also, the unwillingness of the government to use officially printed ballots, on which voters can consciously select their candidates, is an attempt to compel voters to rubber stamp parties’ decisions concerning candidates.
In this environment, Lebanese citizens and voters must realize that BM is not a transient attempt for change. It is part of a larger movement in society that has been fighting for better livability for several years now. Even though the Hirak—made up of activists and civil society organizations who participated in protests in the summer of 2015—gave impetus to the formation of BM, it has deeper roots in individuals and groups who have been striving to change Beirut for the better for some time. BM built on previous experiences, including the campaign to hold municipal elections that took place in 1997 and many other attempts to reform laws and to lobby for policy change on municipal and urban levels. Hence, one should view BM as an accumulation of experiences and knowledge that CSOs have built and are continuing to build.
Change does not manifest itself out of thin air and this is but one step toward true reform in Lebanon. Now, we must take action based on what we have learned from this round of elections by focusing less on changing voters’ political and sectarian convictions and instead providing alternatives to the entrenched political class based on programmatic goals that will benefit the wider public.