Lebanese elections 2022: the absence of a progressive alternative

Lebanese elections 2022: the absence of a progressive alternative
7 min read
06 May, 2022
Despite the momentum of the October 2019 uprisings in Lebanon, there is little hope for progressive alternatives in the upcoming elections, especially with such a weakened trade union movement, writes Joseph Daher.
Ballots for the upcoming elections in Lebanon will be cast on May 15. [GETTY]

Welcome to The New Arab’s coverage of Lebanon’s General Election 2022 held on May 15, 2022. Follow live updates, results, analyses, and opinion in our special hub here.

The Lebanese parliamentary election in May will be taking place two and a half years after the outbreak of the Lebanese Intifada in October 2019. However, amid a deep economic crisis and the absence of any viable progressive and secular political alternative, the dominant sectarian neoliberal parties, from Hezbollah to the Lebanese Forces, will most probably be able to mobilise their confessional bases and maintain, or reinforce, their hegemony in the coming elections.

Multiple reasons exist for this situation. Firstly, the Lebanese system of laws and political framework, which are regulated along religious and patriarchal lines, are critical to the maintenance of divisions within society and therefore to the domination of ruling sectarian elites.

In this regard, the “reforms” of the electoral system adopted for the 2018 elections have not favoured any dynamics outside sectarianism, quite the opposite actually. The requirement of an electoral threshold and preferential voting largely neutralises the effects of the proportional representation provided for in the law and benefits mainly the dominant sectarian neoliberal parties. This system actually encourages candidates to seek preferential votes.

''The elections has been used as a new occasion by different sectarian neoliberal parties to deliver services to particular neighbourhoods and local populations in order to win their votes. At the same time, these parties have made use of technics of intimidation and acts of aggressions against opponents.''

The Lebanese electoral system remains an obstacle to the emergence of class politics from below challenging the sectarian, neoliberal political system and its elites. In this framework, the parliamentary electoral system is still an instrument to institutionalise sectarianism and reproduce as well as strengthen the sense of sectarian identity.

This is why, among other reasons, some small progressive sectors of the uprisings have called to boycott the elections in order to not legitimate such a system and its ruling actors once again.

Additionally, Lebanese sectarian neoliberal parties have developed various mechanisms to maintain their domination, alternating forms of consent and coercion. For instance, they exploited privatisation schemes and their domination of ministries to strengthen networks of patronage, nepotism, and corruption.

In addition, the deepening of the financial crisis and the subsequent Covid-19 pandemic provided new opportunities for them to provide services, such as campaigns to sanitise public spaces and distribute food to the needy in an attempt to rehabilitate their image.

In this context, Hezbollah has been one of the main actors benefiting from the financial crisis, largely due to its extensive network of institutions and access to resources, which have expanded continuously since the late 1980s. It maintained and increased its social assistance to its Shia base between 2020 and 2022 as a way of reconsolidating its hegemony over this population.

The elections has been used as a new occasion by different sectarian neoliberal parties to deliver services to particular neighbourhoods and local populations in order to win their votes.

At the same time, these parties have made use of technics of intimidation and acts of aggressions against opponents. In mid-April for example, armed men, which some say are members of the Amal movement led by Speaker of the House Nabih Berri, surrounded and assaulted opposition candidates in the village of Sarafand, South Lebanon, as they were preparing to launch their electoral program.

Similarly, opposition candidates in Shia populated regions are attacked on social networks by Hezbollah supporters, or accused of collaborating with Israel, while some suffered direct intimidations. Several Shia opposition candidates in the Beqaa, in the cazas of Baalbek-Hermel, have actually resigned after threats and family pressures.

A report published by the Lebanese Association for Electoral Democracy (LADE) in the end of April actually denounced practices on the rise as the elections approach such as vote-buying, pressure and threats on candidates, abuse of power and public resources in election campaigns.

However, the main problem resides in the continuous absence of mass non-sectarian and progressive organisations and parties rooted in the country’s working classes. These do not yet exist, which was a visible weakness for the protest movement which came out of the October 2019 uprising, and its ability to truly challenge the neoliberal sectarian parties and their system.

The election landscape very much reflects this situation.

Progressives and the various sections of the left were very fragmented during the protest movement and this is the case once again during the elections.

Only in the constituency of South Lebanon III, which includes the cazas of Nabatiye, Bint Jbeil and Marjeyoun-Hasbaya, did the political movements of the October 2019 uprisings as well as the Lebanese Communist Party, manage to unite their ranks to put forward a single slate. although not without problems.

More generally, left-wing and progressive forces have not been able to build a united front capable of channelling the demands of the protest movement for the elections.

However, the more liberal and right-wing sectors of the protest movement, such as the Bloc National, which advocate a liberal economic discourse, have made electoral deals in several regions with sectarian parties such as the Kataeb. They have also secured agreements with former deputies, many businessmen who were part of sectarian neoliberal parties and are now presenting themselves as reformists or supporters of the October 2019 uprising.

In the region of Kesrouan and Jbeil for instance, former deputy and businessman Neemat Frem  managed to join forces with the Kataeb and the Bloc National, while in Beirut I, the Kataeb and businessmen Antoun Sehnaoui allied themselves on a single slate.

''Undoubtedly the ruling parties are now set to use the elections as a way to try to regain some legitimacy, both locally and internationally. They will, however, have difficulties particularly among the wider population, as none have the political willingness or perspective to change the nature of the system given they all benefit from it.''

Furthermore, the weakness of trade unions poses a recurring problem. During the Civil War, labour movements and trade unions were important social actors in organising and coordinating protests and civil resistance against the war, sectarian divisions, the power of militias, the Israeli occupation, and fought in favour of the concerns of workers.

Following the end of the Civil War, the country’s elites actively contributed to weakening independent trade union movements since the 1990s. They also co-opted the main federation of trade unions, firstly the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (GCLW) in 2000, and the Union Coordination Committee (UCC) in 2015.

The possibility of cross-sectarian mobilisation and the development of class-based movements present a potential threat to all the sectarian neoliberal movements in Lebanon. The CGTL and UCC were completely absent from the Lebanese Intifada of October 2019 and the same is true of their role in the upcoming elections.

Given these conditions, the emergence of a left-wing and progressive opposition bloc that can challenge the domination of sectarian neoliberal parties in the next parliament is particularly complicated, even if a few figures are elected here and there.

The dominant sectarian neoliberal parties, on the other hand, though diverse, have been able to maintain hegemony over their religious communities through various means, which includes the use of violence. This has bound the interests of subaltern classes to their party structures and agenda. They have continuously - despite their rivalries - worked to prevent the development of any forms of social or political alternatives during and outside of the elections. This is especially the case with the labour movements.

Undoubtedly the ruling parties are now set to use the elections as a way to try to regain some legitimacy, both locally and internationally. They will, however, have difficulties particularly among the wider population, as none have the political willingness or perspective to change the nature of the system given they all benefit from it.

This will therefore ultimately prevent any progress towards a real democratisation of Lebanon and moreover a form of economic recovery and development plan to tackle the socio-economic economic inequalities and the impoverishment of large sectors of the society, as well as to strengthen the productive sectors of the country’s economy.

Joseph Daher teaches at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and is an affiliate professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where he participates in the "Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria Project." He is the author of "Syria after the Uprisings, The Political Economy of State Resilience".

Follow him on Twitter: @JosephDaher19

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.