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Lebanon's non-vote

There’s always an excuse in Lebanon for everything. Power cuts, water shortages, corruption? Blame foreign interference, the Israelis, the Americans, the Saudis, the Syrians, the Iranians. Or blame each other, there are enough factions to go around. But just as the country is going through an unprecedented period of stability and seems to be weathering, for now, the global economic meltdown it is being wracked by pre-election nerves.

The economy is on hold, or at least held back, until after the June 7 elections, some say. Political and economic reforms, social, health care, education and infrastructure programmes too are impossible to get off the ground until after the elections, is the received wisdom. Lebanon’s famed hot summers in times of stability, when the country is flooded by hordes of tourists from the Gulf and hedonistic expats, is even in doubt. The Lebanese themselves are telling people, almost unprecedently maybe to stay away until after the elections. And many a Lebanese of leisure, who can take their holidays whenever the feel like it, are heading overseas. They’d rather miss the whole thing than be home to vote.

It’s all a sign that the much touted stability, which President Michel Suleiman characterised as “at its best”, may be skin deep. Lebanese and international experts, some of whom recently met at a symposium on the upcoming elections organised by the Carnegie Center in Beirut, all professed optimism about the chances of calm in the run-up to the vote. But closer to elections day, tensions might rise and clashes are possible.

In February, it looked as if the whole campaign as going to be laced with violence, as two people were killed on 14 February, the day of the commemoration of the killing of Rafiq Hariri. Other clashes and incidents quickly followed each other for a couple of weeks but then the tensions subsides again. It does seem as if the violence, politic and seemingly otherwise, does track the perceived fortunes chances of the 8 March, Hezbollah-led and partly pro-Syrian political bloc. After the fighting in May and the Doha agreements, where 8 March forced though a redistricting that was seen as very favourable to it, Lebanon enjoyed relative calm. The bloc had ensured its elections victory for the June elections, it was felt, and could now afford to cruise home.

But a series of events, including shifting electoral alliances among the Christians that may yet chip away at the strength of General Michel Aoun’s contribution to the March 8 forces, started undermining that confidence earlier this year. The pitch of the political statements at the time grew shriller and Hezbollah started at that point insisting on another ‘unity’ government containing all factions, whatever the outcome of the elections. When Saad Hariri, the leader of the March 14 Future movement said that if he lost he might choose to be in the opposition, Hezbollah absurdly labelled such ideas ‘treason’. The anti-Syrian March 14 movement, remembering full-well its weakness on the ground from the fighting in May last year, now seems to have accepted the inevitability of another bland coalition. That seems to have been behind PM Siniora’s call for an end to the system under which one group, at the moment 8 March, can hold veto power over major government decisions. So at least, the winner of the elections would be able to rule.

Unfortunately that’s not likely to happen. From the Carnegie event it appeared that another broad coalition was likely, whatever the outcome of the elections. But what really may bode ill for the future development of Lebanon’s democratic process is the same old deal making that seems to be going on behind closed doors by which many of the seats are divided up before a vote even takes place. This is also in many places the reason behind new tensions, when rivals and allies alike jostle for a free ride. Although an unprecedented number of candidates, over 700, had registered when the deadline closed at the beginning of April, election observers expect their ranks to be thinned out partly through such deals. There is more competition than in the past but often this is limited to the highly competitive Christian sector, the only community where there seems to be room for such rivalry. The Sunni community appears to remain firmly behind the son of the assassinated former PM Rafiq Hariri,  Saad Hariri, and his Future movement. And despite some hesitant signs of independent candidates emerging among the Shia, Hezbollah keeps a tight reign over its community and doesn’t shrink back from using intimidation where it feels its dominance is threatened.

The one faint ray of hope in all of this is that if the elections pass off calmly and relatively fairly, for the first time in decades the results cannot be de-legitimised and have to be accepted by all. Unfortunately that may also turn out to be a pipedream, because in Lebanon there is always a way around these things.