Lebanon News

What can we expect from independents now?

A Kilna Watani (All for the Nation) supporter chants slogans during a protest near the Interior Ministry in Beirut, Monday, May 7, 2018. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Looming posters of Lebanon’s long-standing political elite are slowly peeling off buildings and billboards across the country as election fever dies out. For many independent civil society movements that fielded candidates in parliamentary elections for the first time on May 6, the challenge now is to keep up the momentum after a disappointing result.

“We cannot just say, ‘Oh the elections did not go as well as we wanted,’ then sit around and self-flagellate,” You Stink candidate Lucien Bourjeily told The Daily Star.

“We have to push forward with lessons learned. We will be running an evaluation of everything so that next time we can defeat the system.”

Actor and film director Bourjeily lost out on a Beirut I seat to Nicolas Sehnaoui, former telecoms minister and vice president of the Free Patriotic Movement. Despite his defeat, Bourjeily discussed You Stink’s priorities in the coming months with little sign of demotivation.

“If you ask anyone, they would agree that the elections were rigged. So people need to trust the elections again as a way of change. People need to believe that their vote will not be wasted. Impunity must end,” he said.

In Bourjeily’s eyes, the efforts of his group and others like it will be futile if independents face established parties on an unequal playing field. So in the coming months, You Stink will focus on creating mechanisms of accountability that it thinks will lead to a more trustworthy electoral system.

The recent vote was marked by a surge in civil society participation, with a swath of independent groups united under a countrywide list: “Kilna Watani” (All for the Nation). Comprising 66 candidates, the unprecedented alliance spanned nine of Lebanon’s 15 electoral districts.

Campaigning without the financial support that Lebanon’s established parties enjoy, the alliance succeeded in securing Paula Yacoubian a seat in the Beirut I district.

The media personality is a member of the independent Sabaa party.

“It was a beautiful exercise with all the challenges that came with it,” Gilbert Doumit, founder of independent party LiBaladi said of the campaign. Speaking with The Daily Star in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael, Doumit showed no signs of defeat after his loss to Kataeb MP Nadim Gemayel.

“We faced an ugly electoral law with so many barriers, no access to the media and very few public resources. But we still managed to create conversation, a coalition and elect one candidate to power,” he said. “So, after all of this, I’m hopeful.” The elections were held under a new law passed in 2017 that introduced a proportional vote system, which was expected to pave the way for new faces to enter Parliament.

Doumit, a political consultant who has long worked with members of Parliament, described the postelection period as a time for self-reflection for LiBaladi and reorganizing the party’s framework and strategy.

“We’re going to be attacking several things. First, we have to deal with the internal structuring of [LiBaladi]. This means creating a plan to secure our financial resources and organizing the movement to be better prepared in confronting the government.

“We are also inviting the public to give us their opinions.”

Staying true to its grass-roots campaign that prioritized interacting with Lebanon’s citizens, LiBaladi is hosting a public workshop on May 29 at Sin al-Fil’s Padova Hotel. There, Doumit hopes to incorporate the personal opinions and critiques of the public to better strategize.

Mounir Doumani, a member of the Mouwatinoun w Mouwatinat fi Dawla (Citizens Within a State) representative council noted the party was also engaging in a period of “soul searching.”

Specifically, he highlighted Lebanon’s low voter turnout as the party’s most pressing issue.

According to the Interior Ministry, only 49.2 percent of registered voters cast ballots on May 6.

For Doumani, understanding why “10 to 15 percent” of typical voters abstained is critical in order to assess the party’s strategy.

“The first thing we have to learn is that people who would usually vote were not even satisfied to vote for an alternative.

“This means that people did not see [Kilna Watani] as the alternative, and this is a major lesson that we have to learn from.”

Headed by former Telecoms Minister Charbel Nahas, Mouwatinoun w Mouwatinat fi Dawla is not an emerging party.

In 2016, it ran against Beirut Madinati in the capital’s municipal elections. While the party ultimately lost, Doumani noted local participation in the 2016 bid had been better than what the party managed to elicit in its recent national campaign.

This, he admitted, was a “major setback” for the party.

All three representatives of independent groups mentioned their long-term priority over the next few years would be to closely monitor and lobby the government.

With only Yacoubian representing the coalition, a unanimous agreement has been reached – they said – to arrange alliances with various other MPs to push ahead on specific laws.

“This is parliamentary work, and we need to keep lobbying and show the public what we would have done had we been elected,” Doumit said.

Carole Alsharabati, director of the Institute of Political Science at Saint Joseph University, predicted that in the coming months and years, independents parties would reveal their real potential.

“Inevitably there will be some that say, ‘Nothing can change in this country.’ They will be discouraged and some groups will dissolve.

“And there will be those who will have learned a lesson and say, ‘This time we didn’t make it, but there is much to learn from. Let’s debrief, analyze and understand.’”

The biggest obstacle, Alsharabati said, would be the sustainability of each group. “This work takes a lot of time and energy. Many people have their jobs, their families. So the question is: Do they have the capacity to sustain this?”

Despite the odds, Doumit insisted that LiBaladi was here to stay.

“We’re at a point where the rhetoric is not enough. We realize that we have to achieve these results in these four years and grow trust with voters. So no, we’re not going to be dissolving, there will be no vacuum.”

Highlighting Mouwatinoun w Mouwatinat fi Dawla’s work before the elections, Doumani stressed the party’s objective was never centered on the parliamentary vote.

“We are in a political confrontation with these [established] parties.

“This confrontation will happen wherever and whenever.

“Whether it be in parliamentary elections, municipal elections, syndicate elections or on the streets – we’ll be there,” he said.

“If we consider ourselves truly responsible towards our countrymen and women, our response to any potential financial or security risk cannot wait until [the next] elections: It should be formulated now.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 24, 2018, on page 3.

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