Final stretch

Elections in Lebanon


Final stretch
by Hossein Shahidi

The Lebanese will go to the polls on Sunday, June 7, to elect 128 members of parliament, divided equally between the country’s Christian and Moslem communities, each of which include a variety of sects. The Speaker of Parliament is a Shia Moslem, while the President is a Christian and the Prime Minister a Sunni Moslem. The cabinet is also meant to reflect the country’s diversity, which may appear to be religious, but is in fact based on a more complex set of factors, including ethnicity, geographic location, local economy and ties with other countries in the region and beyond. [Photo Essay]

This year, for the first time, elections will be held on one day. In the past, voting would take place over several consecutive weekends and it would be a month before the results were known. This in itself makes the 2009 elections much more exciting. It will also mean the deployment of thousands of troops and police to ensure calm. To ensure transparency, the ballot boxes will be, well, transparent. And voters’ fingers will be marked with indelible ink to prevent more ‘vote early, vote often’.

Now a few more numbers: There are 587 candidates, an average of just over 4 per seat, but in districts such as Zahle and Bekaa the ratio rises to around 10. The spread among various communities is more even, mostly at around 3 to 5 candidates per seat. The voting age is 21, though a campaign to reduce it to 18 has succeeded, for the next elections, in 2013. Another issue has been the right to vote of Lebanese expatriates, whose numbers are as much of an estimate as the country’s own population of around 4 million (CIA World Factbook, Voters must cast their ballots in their paternal constituencies, and there have been reports and satirical comments about political parties buying tickets home for their supporters who live abroad.

While political parties have announced plans and platforms, attention seems to be focused on personalities and allegiances. Faces of individuals or groups of candidates have been appearing on anything from small fliers to giant billboards, which usually carry ads for consumer goods ranging from baby milk powder to cigarettes, whiskey, computers, jewelry, luxury cars and fashion, especially tight jeans. Lebanon has the region’s most diverse ad industry, with more than 90 agencies, and some political ads resemble commercial ones. Some ad agencies have made imaginative use of the elections, presenting bottles of Lebanese beer as ‘The Clear Winner’, or encouraging ‘votes’ for a fast food chain or a lingerie model.

Ethnic, religious, political and cultural diversity have long been part of Lebanon’s history, and sometimes the cause of bloodshed. But this year, more than ever, the elections are essentially political. The issues range from the domestic - such as economic policy and the country’s administration – to the regional and global, especially relations with Iran and Syria on the one hand and the United States on the other. There are alliances of Moslems and Christians, and seculars, on either side of side of the divide.

The main contenders are the current parliamentary majority, the 14 March Alliance, named after the day of a demonstration in 2005, a month after Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination, part of the protests which led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. The alliance is led by Mr Hariri’s son, Sa’d, who is also the leader of its main party, the Future Current. The alliance includes several Christian-based organizations, including the Phalange Party, which has produced many senior politicians in Lebanon over the past half century, and the relatively more recent Lebanese Forces. Another important partner in the 14 March coalition is the Druze-based Progressive Socialist Party, led by Walid Jumblatt, son of the Party’s founder, Kamal Jumblatt, who was assassinated in 1977.

The 14 March alliance is facing the 8 March Alliance, named after the day in 2005 when other political parties organized a demonstration to thank Syria for having stopped the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) and having supported Lebanese resistance to Israeli occupation. The 8 March coalition includes the Lebanese Hezbollah, led by Seyed-Hassan Nasrallah, and the relatively newly formed Reform and Change Bloc, whose main component, the Free Patriotic Movement, is led by a Christian politician, former General Michel Aoun. The 8 March alliance includes a large number of other organizations, some of them secular. (For more details, see the relevant entries on Wikipedia: March 14 Alliance; and March 8 Alliance.)

One interesting features of the election is the fact that the 8 March coalition is still referred to, and refers to itself, as ‘the Opposition’, although it has had members on the cabinet since the clashes in May last year that led to a power-sharing agreement. Another feature is the relative civility of the election campaign, compared to some other countries. To be sure, rival politicians have attacked each other, sometimes in sharp language, but much of the campaigning has been marked with the expressiveness that is characteristic of the Lebanese. Sharp points made by each side are often taken up and ‘spun’ by the other side, usually with plenty of good humor. The images that you will see in the following pages are meant to carry a flavor of this exciting political experience. They capture only a small portion of a big, colorful landscape.

Among the many observers and commentators I have met in Lebanon, one of the wittiest and most perceptive is my friend, Khalil Bdeir, also known as ‘Mike’, after the name of the hairdresser’s salon he has been managing on Bliss Street, near the American University of Beirut, for 47 years. Mike’s predictions of political developments in Lebanon have become less gloomy in the four years that I have known him, but are still far from cheerful. On the elections he says, ‘In what’s called Lebanon, we always pay the price of agreements between other, bigger countries, negative or positive. We’re a small plate, compared to what’s cooking in the big pot outside.’ A picturesque version of the expression, ‘the local is global’.

For more witty observations on the Lebanese elections, and many more aspects of life in this beautiful and inspiring country, you can visit the weblog of another friend of mine, Tarek Chemali, a Lebanese journalist, poet, artist and advertising specialist. The name of Tarek’s weblog is itself an imaginative and accurate description of the Lebanese capital: ‘Beirut Never Twice Same City’. [Photo Essay]

Hossein Shahidi teaches journalism at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.


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