BEIRUT/BAABDAT, Lebanon: While the wallets of independent candidates may not be as deep as their established counterparts, from Lebanon’s capital to the north, south and east, cash flow hasn’t stopped these underdogs from getting out the vote. “I don’t think we need millions of dollars to reach out to people the right way,” Joumana Salloum Haddad said. Running with independent group LiBaladi (For My Country) under the Kilna Watani (All for the Nation) list, Haddad is vying for a seat in the Beirut I electoral district.
“First of all, we’re not buying votes. This is not our approach because we actually respect our voters. Their voices are way more precious than $500 or whatever people are paying them.”
Compared to her wealthier contenders, Haddad and her LiBaladi partners have not had the financial privilege to plaster campaign billboards across the city or purchase lots of airtime on televised media.
Rather, they’re sticking to their guns as a grassroots movement, meeting people on the streets and relying on the skills and motivation of volunteers to advocate their program.
“I love reaching out to people in these personal and direct ways. I think it makes a difference between the independent candidates and those who just rely on expensive and totally unaffordable media exposure.”
Price lists obtained by The Daily Star show billboards around Beirut cost between $1,500 and $18,000 per month, depending on size and location – not including costly printing expenses and VAT.
Haneen Shabshoul, communication coordinator at the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, claimed that combined electoral spending in some districts can climb up to $1 billion.
For Haddad, meeting her constituency in person is a powerful tool she believes to be more effective, specifically when persuading uninvolved or undecided potential voters.
Gilbert Doumit, the founder of LiBaladi who is also running for a seat in Beirut I, noted that as an independent party, its first goal is simply to stoke a public conversation about national policies.
“We want to create dialogue around issues that we consider of top priority, including citizenship laws, women’s rights, and job creation. This is all being facilitated through interventions like door-to-door communication, social media and family gatherings.”
Social media, a considerably cheaper tool, has allowed candidates like Doumit to personally address his voters online through live streaming. While he may not be able to reach every single constituent in person, Doumit utilizes Facebook to address their questions in real-time.
And of course, volunteers have been essential to creating the space and environment for change, Doumit and Haddad agreed.
“Almost my entire team of those working closely with me are youngsters,” Doumit said. “They’re working part-time jobs, and helping me out. Some have even left their jobs temporarily. All the things you see on my social media, the videos, the different events we host, this is all done through our volunteers.”
Recounting his experience volunteering with LiBaladi, 23-year-old Hussein Makke remarked how joyful and different the experience felt compared to traditional Lebanese politics. While Makke is registered to vote in south Lebanon’s Nabatieh, he decided to campaign in Beirut where he currently lives.
“When I arrived to the office, there was such a great vibe. Everyone was young and optimistic, there was so much energy. After some training, we went downstairs into the LiBaladi van to flyer around Beirut and reggae was playing. Man it was amazing, the whole experience was a shock. The atmosphere was really nice.”
In north Lebanon’s Tripoli, Farah Issa, a candidate with the Sabaa Party (also under the Kilna Watani list) said she shared similar strategies.
However, having previously run in the 2016 municipal elections garnering nearly 16,000 votes, Issa has already laid much of the groundwork for her current campaign.
“Even though I didn’t win, we were able to get several seats as civil society,” she said.
Issa was less than 200 votes short of winning her seat – a major breakthrough, despite the loss.
“As an independent female, getting those votes in Tripoli was extremely significant,” she said.
Working alongside the other female candidates with Kilna Watani in Tripoli, Minyeh and Dinnieh, there has been success in getting local media coverage, Issa said.
“There are several local radios, magazines and television channels which have been great for us. Actually, we’re able to get spots and discounts because we are female civil society candidates. We do feel the support that the local community does want to empower us.”