Lebanon News

Can first-time voters shake up Parliament?

A girl casts her vote during elections in Beirut, Sunday, May 8, 2016. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: After nine years without parliamentary elections, Lebanese between the ages of 21 and 29 will have a chance to exercise their right to vote for the first time on May 6. Some political groups, particularly those forged from civil society, are banking on their participation, but a recent study suggests the youth may elect the same leaders their parents and grandparents have long kept in power.

A survey conducted by Statistics Lebanon on behalf of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation attempted to explore expectations, aspirations and profiles of first-time voters.

“We found that sectarianism is still strong, even if people agree that the government is not working,” Khalil Toubia, program manager at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, told The Daily Star. “Despite all the criticism against the state, support for civil society candidates is still very low.”

The elections are being held under a new electoral law that has changed Lebanon’s system from majoritarian to proportional, raising expectations that the vote will bring fresh faces to Parliament.

However, while the survey found that 76 percent of first-time voters had fully committed to participating in the upcoming parliamentary elections, only 7 percent of the respondents believed that their ballot would make a difference in improving Lebanon’s situation.

According to several NGOs and political parties, estimates of the number of first-time voters who have registered for the 2018 elections hover at around 700,000 – roughly 20 percent of the voting population.

The study gathered the opinions of 1,200 individuals across all governorates, in numbers proportional to the regions’ sizes.

While the survey successfully reflects national trends, Toubia said further investigation was needed to draw more accurate conclusions about smaller sectarian communities in the country.

“Even though the Interior Ministry has data on all registered voters, no one has really synthesized it and asked the questions to make this data comprehensible,” Toubia said.

Lebanon’s Interior Ministry retains national registration records and will provide the data set for a price to interested parties, but cases of registration fraud and human error have reduced its accuracy.

“It’s unclear as to how political parties might be understanding and using this [ministry database] for their campaigns,” Toubia said.

Many political parties – particularly Lebanon’s emerging independent groups – are looking to the youth demographic to guarantee their seats in government.

Aziz Antoun, a member of the Kataeb’s central planning bureau, spoke to The Daily Star about the party’s attempt to rebrand itself for these first-time voters.

“This election we’re really trying to focus on the younger crowd. If you notice, this year’s Kataeb campaign is distinct from those in the past. The visuals and the quality of the events are very different from what we have done before.”

Citing corruption and general political failure, Kataeb leader Sami Gemayel in June 2016 announced the resignation from Cabinet of both of the party’s ministers. Since then, the party has repositioned itself as the opposition to Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government.

Antoun noted that Kataeb has admitted it was time to toss out the failures of the past to make way for new potential change.

“We want new MPs, we want new ideas, we want to be a party that the youth can relate to.”

Kataeb’s electoral program addresses controversial issues, including the abolishment of the death penalty as well as amendments to Lebanon’s overextended military law and Military Court.

In an attempt to connect to young people, the program also calls for the regulation of privatized universities in order to ensure improved access to higher education and an assurance of quality in the sector.

According to Antoun, the program includes issues brought up by citizens in a street survey conducted by the party earlier this year.

LiBaladi, a party made up of fresh faces and led in Beirut by political consultant Gilbert Doumit, has targeted a demographic hoping to see change after May 6.

Running a dynamic social media campaign and guerrilla street promotion, its tactics have attracted a tech-savvy younger crowd.

The “Dance LiBaladi” fundraising party set to take place at Station Beirut this Friday exemplifies the party’s campaign strategies and its following. With some of the most popular artists in Beirut’s nightlife scene on its lineup, this event seems sure to cement the party’s reputation as not only the progressive alternative but also the undeniably hip option.

To attract Lebanon’s young first-time voters, having youth in the campaign is crucial, 24-year-old Patrick Azrak – a volunteer for independent group Mouwatinoun w Mouwatinat fi Dawle (Citizens Within a State) in Metn – told The Daily Star.

“It’s a really great opportunity for us youngsters to go out in public, mingle with others and talk about politics.” Azrak said. “For most of us, our political opinions don’t really represent us. They come from our families. Having young campaigners reaching out to other young adults shows that we have their same interests in mind.”

For Azrak and his chosen party, engaging in discourse that includes the country’s youth has been critical in connecting with first-time voters and getting out the vote in general.

But not all parties seem to be relying on the ballots of Lebanon’s new voters. Twenty-year-old Karim Kabbani, a member of the American University of Beirut’s March 14 coalition student network and a volunteer with the Future Movement, depicted their campaign as having “broad” appeal.

The party’s past performance and the diversity of its incoming candidates, he said, will hopefully attract a voter base spanning both new and older voters.

“In our program, we focus on our old elected officials and their previous success. When we advocate our new candidates, we talk about their CVs ... where they studied, what they have accomplished and how their backgrounds can contribute to Lebanon. Each candidate has a certain type of portfolio to appeal to voters,” he said. The young campaigner also noted that volunteers as young as 18 and as old as 80 had dedicated time to campaign.

Carmen Geha, assistant professor of public administration at AUB, said that while Parliament’s endorsement of the new, proportional electoral law had “emboldened” new parties, the “hopeful” future promoted by independent groups in their nontraditional campaigns may not have such wide reach.

“Groups in Beirut have taken on this approach [but] not everyone can campaign in pubs,” Geha said.

“Beirut has been relatively liberal. [This mode of campaigning] is not surprising and we saw this with Beirut Madinati.

“It’s nice, but I don’t think it’s going to create a shift nationwide,” she said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 18, 2018, on page 2.

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