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Beirut’s election was surprisingly competitive. Could it shake up Lebanese politics?

- May 11, 2016
A Lebanese woman casts her vote at a polling station during the municipal elections in Beirut, Lebanon, on May 8. (Hassan Ammar/Associated Press)

On May 8, Lebanon held the first of four rounds of municipal elections. The only elections since 2010, this round of voting represents Lebanese citizens’ first opportunity to exercise their political voice since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, ensuing influx of refugees and popular protests against a paralyzing trash crisis. Lebanon’s politicians have repeatedly postponed the parliamentary elections originally scheduled for June 2013 and the country has been without a president since May 2014. Amid this political impasse at the national level, municipal elections have become the last remaining institutional mechanism for generating a modicum of political accountability.

Beyond activists’ efforts to ensure the funding of these elections, protesters and members of civil society have called for greater decentralization and fiscal resources for municipal councils. This is especially relevant as municipalities have become the de facto front line in managing both the trash crisis and the dire refugee situation – receiving significant assistance from international donors. In this political context, the ongoing municipal elections have taken on additional symbolic and practical importance. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the capital, where Beirut Madinati (Arabic for “Beirut, My city”), a list of independent technocrats and activists, proposed a programmatic agenda and made the capital city’s municipal elections competitive for the first time in Lebanon’s post-war history.

During the Lebanese civil war, municipal councils lost much of their influence. Even though the war ended in 1991, new elections were not held until 1998. Since then, municipal elections proceed at regular six-year intervals, with elections taking place in 2004, 2010 and now 2016. A sizable portion of municipal revenue comes directly from the national-level Independent Municipal Fund (IMF). The disbursement of funds is officially based on population size, but a lack of transparency plagues the distribution process. In 2009, an average 36 percent of municipal revenues came through the Independent Municipal Fund. Another 16 percent came from surtaxes collected from water and telephone authorities on behalf of the municipalities. And the remaining 48 percent came through direct revenue, mostly from real estate and property taxes. A 1977 law codified relatively far-reaching local powers, stating that any “work having a public character or utility” is within municipal jurisdiction.

Despite these formal powers, municipalities are often unable to implement local policies and projects, because of their size. Although Lebanon is a small country of only 4,036 square miles and a population of approximately 4.5 million, it is divided into 985 municipalities, many of which contain fewer than 4,000 residents. Under current laws, municipalities receive most of their revenue from local taxation, but their small size renders them incapable of funding public works projects and local development.

Further complicating these elections, the vast majority of Lebanese citizens can only vote in their hometown of origin and not in the municipality in which they may be currently living. This constraint on voting rights has far-reaching implications in a country where rural-urban migration and war-induced demographic changes are widespread. For Beirut, this system is particularly important. Despite being home to just under two million residents, the capital city has only 470,000 registered voters, many of whom live abroad. This means that most of those living in the city do not have a vote and depend on the few who do to choose candidates that will govern them all.

Historically, municipal elections in Lebanon have been dominated by members of traditional political families allied with national sectarian parties. During my field research in Beirut and its suburbs, I found that the relationships between parties and the local families contesting municipal elections is complex and varied. In areas under the control of a single party, the party more tightly controls the process of creating the main candidate list for elections. In areas where multiple parties have offices and compete in national elections, pre-election negotiations are more important in determining the make-up of the candidate list presented to voters. However, regardless of the nature of these pre-election deals, the outcome from the voter’s perspective is similar – usually a single viable list of candidates and an election whose result is a foregone conclusion. Municipal elections are most often devoid of meaningful competition. Although sometimes parties fail to create a single list or independents coordinate to present an alternative, the winners are usually those associated with traditional poles of powers, be they parties or powerful families. Once elected, officials serve as yet another connection point for citizens trying to navigate Lebanon’s nepotistic “wasta” system, in which who you know is key to getting what you want.

Candidates for municipal elections rarely present programmatic platforms and concrete agendas for local development. Until now.

In the wake of widespread protests and public frustration over the ruling elite’s inability to formulate a sustainable plan for the provision of a most basic public goods – the management of waste –Beirut’s citizens have decided to take matters into their own hands. For the first time in the city’s recent history, the volunteer-based social movement Beirut Madinati has presented the city’s voters with an alternative to entrenched political parties and their candidates. Beirut Madinati’s list of candidates is unaffiliated with any of the ruling political parties and includes an eclectic mix of engineers, architects, professors, activists, artists, educators, a fisherman and even a prominent actress and filmmaker. The group has mounted a grassroots campaign, raising funds through individual donations and reaching voters through town hall meetings. It has presented a 10-point program that prioritizes “the primacy of the public good, social justice, transparency, and stewardship of our city for future generations.” While this may seem like a commonplace platform, it is a historic change from the typically personalistic and sectarian rhetoric that surrounds Lebanese elections.

Amid serious allegations of electoral fraud and delays in the reporting of results by the Ministry of the Interior, the results of Sunday’s election are finally in. Although Beirut Madinati lost to the “Beirutis” list led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the nascent social movement won roughly 40 percent of the vote, much more than was anticipated. However, in Lebanon’s first-past-the-post system, all seats went to the establishment list. Still, Beirut Madinati got more than 60 percent of the vote in the mostly Christian district of Achrafieh, and by some rough estimates, 30 percent of the Sunni vote in the city – a surprisingly high figure in light of widespread support for Hariri among the community. In addition to the well-oiled political machines of establishment politicians, Beirut Madinati also had to battle low turnout – partly due to Beirut’s many registered voters living abroad and partly due to the widespread voter skepticism about political change. A significant risk-averse segment of the electorate, still prefers voting for the devil it knows. And many Beirut Madinati supporters could only volunteer for the group but not vote because of the electoral law requiring voting in hometown of origin.

And yet despite Beirut Madinati’s loss, social media and the Lebanese blogosphere have exploded in response to the results, citing the list’s relative success as an important symbolic victory and step forward for those seeking reform in Lebanese politics. Beirut Madinati has succeeded in moving the discourse and campaign rhetoric in a decidedly more programmatic direction, forcing the establishment list to adopt a platform and present voters with a substantive plan of action. The new list also forced the establishment to rely on more visible and unsavory means of guaranteeing their victory, exposing the cracks in the ruling political class’s hold on power and support among the population. According the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, 647 violations were observed in the first day of elections, double the number for the 2010 elections.

This election also demonstrated the possibility of channeling the energies of spontaneous protests and legitimate popular frustrations into a formal and institutional challenge to the ruling elite. In a country and a region where sectarian discourse often dominates both political campaigns and political analysis, this grassroots campaign is a potent reminder that change, even slow and incremental, is indeed possible.

Amanda Rizkallah is a pre-doctoral fellow in the Belfer Center’s Middle East Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.