Lebanon's trend towards independents

Fresh-faced and not (yet) corrupt: Can Lebanon's independents make a difference?
5 min read
04 May, 2018
Comment: Hundreds of independent candidates are standing in Lebanon's elections, but offer little in the way of vision, writes Bachar Halabi
Hundres of candidates are standing in Sunday's elections [Getty]

Observing the Lebanese political scene these days gives you the impression that tribalism is alive and kicking in full gear ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled to take place on Sunday May 6.

The 2009 parliamentary election had a different type of tit-for-tat electoral campaign since it mainly featured two political coalitions – March 8 and March 14 – competing over rival visions of Lebanon.

March 8, headed by Hizballah, saw Lebanon as the bastion of resistance against Israel and “Western imperialism” and an element of the so called “resistance axis” that spreads through Damascus and Baghdad to Tehran. March 14, meanwhile, was a coalition allied to Western powers, namely the United States and France, envisioning Lebanon as a relatively liberal service-providing oasis aiming to host Arab tourists and investors from around the region.

Both visions were on a collision course and the rest was history. Nine years later, that election’s legacy is twofold:

Hizballah became a hegemon, controlling the state’s strategic decisions, while leaving a margin for all other sectarian parties to put aside their differences and come together. This resulted in a surreal opportunistic power-sharing formula, which many, if not most Lebanese citizens are still trying to comprehend.

Secondly, a new alternative emerged, mainly stemming from “independent” figures from civil society groups fighting for a variety of civil and political causes, campaigning against the government and the confessional system; young figures that saw light in the wake of the 2015 refuse crisis that drew headlines around the world.

The years of nepotism and poor governance of the traditional political parties has opened the door to fresh figures to surge onto the Lebanese political scene

That said, some independents may be less independent than others, having previous ties to the major parties.

Of 595 candidates competing for 128 seats; 66 candidates classed as independent formed a coalition and will be running in nine of the 15 electoral districts across the country.

The years of nepotism and poor governance of the traditional political parties has opened the door to fresh figures to surge onto the Lebanese political scene, armed mainly with the slogan of “fighting corruption”. According to Transparency International, Lebanon ranked 143 out of 180 on their annual index - pitting it among the 40 most corrupt countries in the world. Citizens, regardless of sect or political affiliation, have suffered tremendously from decaying infrastructure, poor services and an ailing economy.

However, is political rhetoric built mainly on fighting corruption and the “give us a chance” plea enough for a much-needed change in Lebanon?

The answer is no, and a majority of the independent candidates have either shied away from divisive topics or avoided making clear political statements regarding foreign policy, Lebanon’s relationship with its neighbours and the international community, or even tackling the refugee crisis by providing their own vision to its solution.

These candidates have been cursed with tribal politics, which draws significant comparisons with the traditional political parties.

Independents think they possess the moral high ground simply for running against a class of corrupt politicians. Often, the mere possibility that someone is a member of “the other side” is enough to spark vitriol, regardless of intention. Expats voting in their adopted countries last week were roasted on social media by “independent” online activists for voting for political parties. They were bombarded with all types of insults and accused of being detached, uncaring for the suffering of Lebanese residents.

Many independents also think it is all right to minimise or excuse offences against Lebanese citizens voting along traditional lines. After all, what are accusations of Lebanese citizens being sheep and immoral compared to new “uncorrupt” candidates that are “sacrificing” their time and effort for the good of the people and for a better future?

Independents are hoping to bank on the votes of an estimated 700,000 new voters

This is utilitarianism, bare and simple. Independent candidates seem to pursue English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham’s imperative: achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Hence, in utilitarian calculations people justify sacrificing (or stepping over) personal opinions of people in order to achieve the interest of the many.

They are also pushing for a tribal political narrative that aims to create a heavy sense of identity mainly among the young generation - and people, in this day and age, easily succumb to moral tribalism.

Any Lebanese citizen born in 1988 or later has never had the chance to vote in a legislative election. Independents are hoping to bank on the votes of an estimated 700,000 new voters to reach the electoral threshold which would allow some of their candidates to compete, thanks to the proportional law.

Therefore, a significant number of young people are heading to polling stations on Sunday simply to vote against the politicians that failed to provide them with good public schools and universities, failed to provide their parents with a healthcare system, and failed to provide them with competency-based employment opportunities.

Independents will score results on Sunday, not because the voters thought them more competent or more closely aligned with their abstract political interests, but simply because they are new people and they are not “yet” corrupt.

This paints a fairly pessimistic picture. Yet, there is a reason for optimism. A new generation is learning through trial and error, and new leaders are emerging within society. Yet it is important for accountability to stamp the relationship between people presenting themselves as an alternative and their followers.

If they fail or when they fail, it should be the time to step aside and help transmit their expertise to new leaders in order for them to build on their experiences and take their chances in cracking the system.

Bachar El-Halabi is currently pursuing a second MA in political science at the L'École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He also holds an LLM in International Law, and Bachelors in Engineering and Political Science from AUB.

Follow him on Twitter: @Bacharelhalabi