Wednesday, July 25, 2007

By-elections aim to break the Lebanese democratic tradition

The coming by-elections in Beirut and the Metn are heating up Lebanon's political scene once again. Both by-elections have come following the assassination of two loyalist MPs, Walid Eido (Beirut) and Pierre Gemayel (Metn).

As both were members of the March 14 alliance, the loyalists were hoping the Opposition would leave the seats vacant for their candidates. In Lebanon, it seems we tend to make up our own rules of democracy. Lebanese democracy rarely invokes people power, but is rather an assortment of feudal oligarchs. Throughout Lebanon's short and turbulent history, elections have been based on the best deals between clan chieftains and who signs the larger cheques. As our system is designed on confessional and sectarian grounds, the Lebanese have tended to simply entrust their local chieftains to make the correct decisions, and continue their corruption.

March 14 were hoping this Lebanese democratic tradition would continue, but alas, someone has finally said no more. The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) has jumped to the occasion of a by-election and thrown in a candidate in the Christian heartland of the Metn. In Beirut, Najah Wakim's People's Movement has decided to contest the Hariri monopoly of the city. His candidate, Ibrahim Halabi, is unlikely to succeed on election day, but they have succeeded in finally providing an alternative for Beirut voters.

In the 2005 parliamentary elections, all of Beirut's MPs were decided at a dinner table, with sole candidates for each district. Not much of an election in Western terms, but in Lebanon there's always exceptions. Of course, Western leaders and media continue to refer to March 14 as the "democratically elected majority". Ibrahim Halabi's candidacy is already a triumph for Beirut and Lebanon in general. Finally, there is an election!

Of course, Lebanese rarely see true election contests. Whilst analysts and politicians refer to these by-elections as upping the ante in the tension, I am actually quite excited. Our people are going to genuinely experience a real democratic battle, which is exceptionally rare in our corner of the globe. It is my hope that the Lebanese will continue to actively engage in elections, and not simply allow the oligarchs to choose their seats of power over a Beaujolais.

As expected, the oligarchs were not impressed when they heard that they would have to actually require public votes for their seats. Saad Hariri called those who dared to battle in the Beirut by-election as "assassins", while Amine Gemayel (former PM, Israeli ally and father of slain Pierre Gemayel) struggled to keep his calm when unleashing on FPM leader Michel Aoun.

Although Hariri's Future Movement (FM) is expected to comfortably secure the Beirut seat, the stakes are much higher in the Metn. FPM is running into these elections beaming with confidence. They made a clean sweep in the predominantly Christian Metn in 2005, and in fact left Pierre Gemayel's seat vacant for him as a gift. The strategic gift by FPM to maintain warm relations with the Gemayel clan and their Phalange Party came to no avail. The latter became an addition to the March 14, and declared themselves as opponents of the FPM. Obviously, Aoun is not going to repeat the same mistake. He has already won the support of the Armenian Tashnag and MP Michel Murr, guaranteeing the FPM a handy 30,000+ in votes.

As the FPM aim to secure total Christian support, Amine Gemayel is counting his days. This is a momentous development on Lebanon's political scene. The once all-powerful feudal Gemayel clan is about to be stripped of their political power. One clan down, several more to go. If the Christians of Lebanon are able to shed the community of their once most revered tribal family, perhaps it may set the wind of change for the other sects. Will the Druze ever turn against Jumblatt as the Christians are now turning against Gemayel? I hope it won't take another 70 years to remove another tribal powerhouse from their destructive positions of power.

The Lebanese Forces (LF - another March 14 member), as well as the Maronite Patriarch Sfeir, are pleading for the FPM to leave the seat vacant. MP Pierre Dakkache is mediating to find a compromise candidate. Why? The decision is up to the people, this is democracy. No more corruption, no more under-the-table deals. It's time the Lebanese were given the opportunity to vote and decide between alternative candidates.

I don't expect a compromise candidate, but I would not be surprised by violent outbursts in the run-up to the elections. As our army is incredibly over-stretched (from Nahr el Bared to the Israeli borders), under-equipped, and under-manned, this might be the prime occasion for some troublemakers to stir the pot.

Then again, what is a Lebanese election without a few dead? That's one traditional trait we may just keep.

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