Lebanon’s political old guard have been at the government’s helm for decades -– some since the 15-year-long civil war came to an end in 1990.
But as the parliamentary elections approach, fresh faces have started to appear from within the independent groups who are challenging the political elite.
Groups that have risen to prominence during Lebanon’s 2015 garbage crisis such as You Stink and others including Sabaa and Li Baladi, have joined forces under an umbrella coalition named Kuluna Watani and proved what appear to be worthy contenders to break the political mold the country has grown accustomed to and which many are now disillusioned by.
Walid Hallassou, a member of Sabaa’s executive council, said ever since the crisis in 2015 when a breakdown in government services meant garbage piled up in Beirut’s streets, it has become apparent that people are fed up with the way things are being handled. And he said these minority groups have accepted that compromises are necessary if they are to work as one political force.
“Many of the civil society components sacrificed a lot to create this coalition, and we are able to show that we have 66 candidates running in nine different districts. This is a very powerful message we are giving to the people,” he added.
A united front?
While the coalition is completely formed of independent groups, other non-affiliated lists have opted not to join the coalition, stating that many candidates within the alliance were previously affiliated with old regime parties.
In east Beirut, one group named Kelna Beirut is among eight other lists running, but it has distanced itself from Kuluna Watani.
Kelna Beirut’s founder and candidate, Ibrahim Mneimneh, said many of the groups running in his district under the guise of independent were not as they seemed.
“You will see that many of the figures and candidates on the lists are not really independent. They may be an extension of the current establishment, somehow funded or backed by some of the existing political parties or groups,” he said.
His list is not the only one choosing to run separately from the coalition.
In the Chouf-Aley region, Madaniya, another group that also disassociated itself from other political movements, also opted out of Kuluna Watani.
Madaniya candidate Mark Daou said his list chose a total disengagement from the old regime, deciding not to align with formerly affiliated ministers and members of parliament, choosing a totally fresh-faced list.
Although Kelna Beirut, Madaniya and Kuluna Watani have the same core rhetoric they still found reasons not to run as a single coalition that would have arguably had a greater chance of dealing a more significant blow to the establishment. As a result, there is a good chance that none of them will win any seats in parliament.
“Sectarian political parties are stronger and more tight-knit. They are the ones who laid the rules of the game while civil society groups didn’t know how to pull themselves together and unify,” political analyst Amine Ammouriyye told Arab News.
“Maybe, and only maybe, they might have a very poor chance in east Beirut. If they are lucky they might win one seat,” he said.
Electoral law hopes
Lebanon’s new electoral system merges proportional representation with quotas for each religious group to maintain the country’s sectarian balance among the 128 seats in parliament.
Under this arrangement, the majority system has been replaced and the threshold needed to win an election lowered — a plan that should benefit independents and reformers, easing the grip on the power of the country’s main clans.
Voters will cast ballots both for their favored list of candidates and a preferred candidate on that list.
But Ammouriyye believes the new law will make little difference on the election results, saying the usual suspects will continue to reign, at least for now.
“The new voting system, even if it’s modern, is not practical to be applied on small communities. You can’t do percentage on small communities, because this won’t allow traditional lists to be split,” Ammouriyye said. “They also introduced the preferential vote which will only allow the religious sectarian candidates to win and the ones with money who can buy votes. Because it’s a small community they can better control the buying of votes and also the sectarian brainwashing of the voters more.”
New laws aside, such groups rely mostly on registered voters actually going to the booths and casting their ballots.
During the 2016 municipal elections, independent group Beirut Madinati lost to Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri’s Future Movement. Although it amassed 40 percent of the votes, only 20 percent of the registered electorate voted.
“Historically in Lebanon, voter turnout is not very high except in certain places where people are enforced to go …but what we are seeing is that people are excited, they are hopeful, they have seen something that resembles them,” Hallassou said.
And with the last parliamentary elections a mere distant memory from nine years ago, most of the voters targeted by these political groups are first-time voters keen to pump new blood into the system.