ElectionsMay 13, 2022
Votes, Like Elections, Matter
- Fadi Nicholas Nassar
On 17 October 2019, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people rallied across Lebanon to denounce the country’s ruling class and the broken system that invisiblized them. Lebanon’s thawra (“revolution” in Arabic) was a reminder to historians, political scientists, and governments that history, in all its grandeur, is ultimately always shaped by the ordinary voices its pages too often ignore.
Nearly three years later, the enormous responsibility of history falls once again on millions of citizens as they prepare for the first parliamentary elections since the thawra, which will—one way or another—decide the country’s future.
But on the eve of elections, the confidence that pulsed through the popular uprising across Lebanon in the fall of 2019 is hard to find.
There is no escaping the despair, anxiety, and disappointment—or better yet, the waning of hope—that haunts a people who have lived through three years of economic depression, political violence, a global pandemic, the Port of Beirut blast, and no accountability, justice, or meaningful international support for any of these catastrophic crises.
The heightened vulnerability brought on by these injustices—combined with the almost ubiquitous alienation of voters by an intransigent establishment, a fragmented opposition, and largely indifferent international community—have significantly deflated enthusiasm for the elections.
But recognizing the obstacles confronting Lebanon’s struggle for freedom and democracy does not mean surrendering to the false politics of inevitability.
Indeed, unlike history, the future has yet to be written. October 17 should remind nihilistic pundits surrendering elections that have yet to take place that those ignored by history are never predictable, particularly when they are fighting for nothing short of their collective freedom.
But herein lies the central challenge, how can we understand the very real alienation of voters, while holding fast to encourage voters to participate in elections that may not fully capture the spectrum of their political aspirations?
To do so, we must reconcile what political and social scientists in Lebanon, including ourselves, have ultimately failed to do: Clarify what elections are, and what they are not. Are elections a silver bullet that will radically transform systemic issues like clientelism, sectarianism, political violence, economic inequality, and the pervasive state of corruption in Lebanon?
Or, is May 15, and whatever outcome it brings, a step in a continuous struggle for space—a contest for the seats of power that will largely govern the contours that can either work to advance or block such systemic change?
A People, Invizibilized
The lull before elections is always a time of reflection, especially when the promise of changing history comes so close to fruition. And when revolutionary change has yet to bloom, only one question seems to matter: Why?
If Lebanon’s thawra embodied a popular uprising’s struggle for systemic change, revisiting the obstacles it endured—and the challenges facing political participation outside the electoral process—will help better understand the importance of challenging those that make up the country’s legislature and why calls to boycott the elections fall short. Space, like the votes that decide the extent of its borders, matters.
From the very start of the revolution, protesters, dissidents, and journalists were subject to varied forms of political violence that intensified with time. In their mapping of collective actions, the Centre for Social Sciences Research and Action documented a progressively shrinking civic space in Lebanon, resulting from increased repression like the restriction of freedom of assembly, violent assaults, as well as arbitrary arrests and other infringements on freedom of expression.
Echoing these findings, a soon-to-be-released LCPS poll on youth behavior in the electoral districts of Beirut I and II, conducted in April 2022, suggests that perceptions of insecurity affected the decision-making of respondents who did not participate in the 2019 protests. Violence and the environment of insecurity it imposes on the individual sustain systemic issues like limited confidence in public institutions and processes, sectarianism, patronage, and corruption.
If political violence and restrictions on civic space amplified the costs of participating in collective action and other forms of dissidence, the uncompromising position of the establishment obfuscated the concrete successes that would materialize by taking on such risks. The early resignation of then Prime Minister Saad Hariri towards the end of October 2019 did not trigger a wave of resignations in the legislative or executive branches. Nor did it set a precedent. The subsequent interim prime minister, Hassan Diab, resisted calls from demonstrators to step down throughout his tenure, only submitting his resignation after the port of Beirut blast.
Similarly, despite the scale and intensity of the Beirut port blast and the immediate protests that followed, only a minority of members of parliament resigned, and the country’s other political branches remained largely unmoved. Intransigence since 2019 was not limited to MPs and government ministers, as banks entrenched their positions and tightened their grip over depositors. In addition, the Central Bank governor, though publicly cornered, remains in control of the country’s monetary policies, and the justice initiatives for the port blast largely obstructed.
The pattern of entrenched positions, despite the shocking collapse of the country’s economy and the rise of political violence, was met with relative inaction by the international community. Researchers and experts within international organizations like the World Bank’s Lebanon Economic Monitor and the UN Special Rapporteur for Poverty’s report on Lebanon clearly highlight the responsibility of the government and the ruling class for failing to take decisive action that would have put the brunt of financial losses for corrective measures on elite individuals and institutions rather than the most vulnerable. Despite this, the policies of their organizations continue to prioritize the very governmental actors they accuse of bearing the brunt of responsibility for one of the worst financial crises in modern history. Even multilateral initiatives that promised novel integration of CSOs like the Reform, Recovery, and Reconstruction Framework (3RF) have, in practice, failed to deliver the transformative reforms promised, and ultimately effectively respond to government obstruction.
More importantly, despite early pledges by US President Joe Biden to prioritize democracy promotion and anti-corruption initiatives around the world, Washington and other international actors like Britain, the EU, and Switzerland appear unwilling to lead multilateral efforts to freeze stolen assets, sanction ruling elites, support international accountability mechanisms, or take robust measures that would weaken the capacities of malign actors holding Lebanon ransom.
Collective inaction in the face of the complete collapse of Lebanon’s economy, the enduring state of vulnerability of the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants, and the unchecked escalation of political violence in Lebanon have torn at the country’s already fragile social contract. The nearly three-year accumulation of these elements, all with impunity, work to strengthen the existing establishment’s narrative that its rule is inevitable. Adjust to a new, impoverished, and illiberal status quo, or leave.
The painful lesson of the thawra’s retreat is that Lebanon’s political establishment does not get its legitimacy from popular support—but through a complex system of violence, patronage, fear, and control over public positions and institutions. Participating in elections or boycotting them, does little to take away or add to the legitimacy of the contest, when it is the space that is being contested and the seats of power awarded that ultimately legitimize the actors who occupy them.
The waning of collective action across Lebanon signaled a turn among elements in a nascent opposition movement towards competing in more formal politics. And while the upcoming parliamentary elections will be the first legislative contest since the start of the crisis, Lebanon has seen varied results in elections at the syndicate and university level. While losses for opposition groups like the Beirut Bar Association election in November 2021 serve as a cautious reminder that popular discontent with the ruling class does translate to their inevitable electoral defeat, the victory of the opposition Naqaba Tantafid in the engineers syndicate in July the same year was an equally important reminder that opposition movements can win elections.
While 2021 saw mixed results for syndicate elections—pointing to the uncertainty, rather than the inevitability, of electoral outcomes—incidents like the clashes that took place during the syndicate elections of the Order of Dentists underscore the dangers of electoral violence, intimidation, and other illiberal practices.
The experience of syndicate elections forewarned of growing disconnect between opposition elements—not just a waning unity, but the absence of a clear consensus over a strategic vision for how to compete in formal political elections. Ultimately, as voters know too well, such consensus did not materialize. Instead, a wave of opposition parties launched their official campaigns, leaving voters confused about whether they were allies or competitors.
To be fair, the responsibility of leading an opposition, in an environment of despair, was thrust on a nascent movement largely outside the political process. Still, the apparent role of divisive personalities, informal and formal alliances with traditional parties in the opposition (like the Kataeb or Communist party), or elisions on sensitive issues like political violence and those responsible for it, have obfuscated who is and is not an authentic opposition actor.
Parties across the spectrum have also failed to create an equal and safe space to ensure the full and meaningful inclusion and participation of women in the upcoming elections. Women continue to be significantly underrepresented in electoral lists, making up only 15% of those running. A recent UN Women social media campaign further highlights the gendered violence and alienation towards women across the gamut of political participation, from voting to campaigning, in Lebanon.
The accumulation of these shortcomings demonstrates, again, that public frustration or alienation with the existing establishment or system does not necessarily translate into support for emerging opposition parties. What needs to be stressed here is that this disconnect is not necessarily a function of ideological division. Polling data by LCPS, that has yet to be published, suggests that youth in Beirut are largely unfamiliar with the majority of emerging opposition groups, pointing to a potential communication and outreach deficit. High levels of unfamiliarity in Beirut are of concern, given additional challenges independent and alternatives actors face outside Beirut, particularly in rural areas.
A Battle Not Yet Lost
Though a critical first step in that direction, elections are not likely to wield an immediate and comprehensive subversion of the country’s political, economic, and social system. The elections on May 15, however, are a contest that will decide which actors will make-up the next parliament and the resulting space that offers actors within and outside a new government to work towards such transformation. These are the decision-makers who will ultimately negotiate with international donors any rescue and reform process, help pave the way for—or obstruct—justice and accountability mechanisms for the country’s multiple crises, and either resist or reinforce growing infringements on fundamental rights.
These elections are also about disputing the politics of inevitability that, in its fixed gaze towards structures and contextual forces, denies people of their rightful agency and claim over their own lives. This does mean downplaying the real risks of electoral violence and the structural alienation that limit the freeness and fairness of these elections, particularly for the most vulnerable, nor underestimating and eliding the courage of organizers that have put their bodies and lives on the line to defy those very infringements on their inalienable rights.
Alternative parties may be plagued with challenges, but only a few years ago they were considered inconceivable…and traditional parties, untouchable. Revolutionary change does not come in seasons, and neither its victory nor loss is guaranteed—it is a continuous and collective struggle.
Waves start with ripples, and the tide set by the momentous votes cast by the diaspora, though not necessarily decisive in all electoral districts, drowns out false narratives that Lebanon’s elections have already been decided.
We are living through moments of existential struggle. Those critical junctures, where the injustices we either accept or resist, determine the future of generations to come. Ultimately, it is voters across the country who must decide to either be swept by history or leave their mark and claim their future.Fadi Nicholas Nassar is a research fellow at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS). His research focuses on international humanitarian and relief interventions in fragile and conflict settings, popular uprisings and social movements, and Lebanese and Middle Eastern politics. He is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution at the Lebanese American University (LAU). Fadi holds a PhD from the War Studies Department at King’s College London. A graduate of Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, he also received a Master of Public Administration from Columbia University.