BEIRUT/BEIT MERY: In Lebanon’s 2018 parliamentary elections, the country saw the largest coalition of independent candidates running in nine of 15 districts, but recognized independents Ghassan Moukheiber and Ziad Baroud opted to join lists with established parties. Having both lost their bids for Parliament, The Daily Star spoke with Moukheiber, a former MP, and Baroud, an ex-Cabinet minister, as they looked back on their campaigns.
“What does it mean to be independent?” Moukheiber wondered out loud, sitting in his home office in the Metn town of Beit Mery. “I’ve long reflected on this myself.”
Moukheiber, a former independent MP of nearly 16 years, made a name for himself as a progressive ally to civil society by prioritizing human rights, environmental justice and the fight against corruption.
His most prominent feat was the 2017 passage of Lebanon’s first access to information law – a bill that was submitted as a draft nearly a decade earlier.
Judging by his political career, Moukheiber seemed a perfect fit for Kilna Watani (All for the Nation) – Lebanon’s first coalition of independent candidates.
But Moukheiber, close to the Free Patriotic Movement, ran as an independent with Strong Metn – a list of candidates affiliated to the FPM, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Tashnag Party. Ultimately, he lost his set to the FPM’s Elias Bou Saab.
Moukheiber acknowledged the alliance meant he had to grapple with some of his supporters questioning the motives behind the choice.
Baroud, a longtime friend and colleague of Moukheiber’s, found himself in the same boat.
During his tenure as interior minister, Baroud invited activists and watchdogs to work with the ministry for the 2009 parliamentary elections. The decision was reflective of his roots in civil society and his aspirations for reform.
Yet in his campaign to win the Maronite seat in Kesrouan, he too opted not to run with Kilna Watani.
Instead, Baroud joined the FPM’s Strong Lebanon list.
Both explained that the choice of alliance was a strategic decision to pursue the most realistic route to Parliament. Running with Kilna Watani was too great a risk, they said, and the threshold was too high to compete against established parties in both districts.
The threshold refers to the number of votes a list needed to gain a seat in Parliament.
“Mathematically, it was not reasonable,” Moukheiber said. “I had long conversations with [former Minister and Kilna Watani candidate in Metn] Charbel Nahas before the elections. We are good friends and we still talk. I never looked at him as an opponent. We are all trying to achieve very similar things.”
Separately, Baroud agreed, but he expanded on a conceptual issue he faced when solicited to join Kilna Watani. “Going in an alliance with a list doesn’t mean you lose your independence and it doesn’t mean that you’re against civil society groups,” he said.
“I’ve been asked this question by many [people], and in my reading, civil society cannot be part of elections. Civil society is a concept, not a specific group of people. Once you enter an election, you are no longer civil society, but a political entity.”
Despite having much in common with various Kilna Watani candidates, Baroud felt that internal divisions and a lack of leadership made for a weak alliance. Like Moukheiber, he considered his odds were better with the FPM list, taking into account the high threshold.
However, both candidates came up against criticism from supporters for joining lists of candidates with seemingly clashing values.
“I definitely lost the votes of some possible supporters because of the members of my list.
“The electoral alliance was a calculated risk that did not materialize. But it’s strategic, it’s electoral.”
While acknowledging the optics of his political decisions, Moukheiber noted that it was simply strategy, one that did not work in his favor this time around.
“For me, all these are tools. Political alliances are tools for an end. One has to create alliances that will lead you to your goal. By the same token, being in a systemically corrupt state, you have to deal with the corrupt to end corruption,” he said, but noted there were certain issues where he wouldn’t compromise.
“I’ve never worked alone,” he said. “In everything I have done, I’ve formed associations. I believe in the value of collaboration and I very strongly believe that only collaboration will lead to results.”
Despite it taking upward of 10 years for his information law to pass and five years for the anti-torture law he put forward, Moukheiber still firmly stands by his commitment to patience. In his opinion, Lebanon requires patience for reform and it is not a job for the self-righteous.
“You collaborate with the good and the worst, and that’s the reality,” he said.
While Baroud echoed the same sentiments, he also noted the importance of supporting the presidency despite his position as an independent. “I believe that the president should be supported and get the assistance that is needed. [The FPM] list would have led to a parliamentary bloc supporting the president and that was my choice.
“The president of the Republic needs a strong backing, and in my opinion, [President] Michel Aoun displayed great character during the period of uncertainty with [Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation crisis]. He was able to unify the country.” Aoun is the founder of the FPM.
Baroud also argued it was possible to separate the president from his political party.
“Sure, he is a member of the FPM, but as a president, he also carried on a role as a neutral arbiter. We saw this during the elections when he did not campaign with the FPM in Kesrouan, one of the most competitive districts for the party. For a government to progress, there needs to be a Parliament that supports the presidency.”
The former interior minister insisted that these positions did not compromise his role as an independent. And while they may have put him in direct conflict with those whom also claimed the independent title, it did not make them enemies, he said. “These things are not as black and white as people make them out to be. I was in contact with many members of Kilna Watani during the elections, and I am still in contact with them.”
Whether allied with the national coalition or not, according to Baroud, individuals can still maintain their agency and make a positive contribution.
“This is what makes a healthy democracy. We are all entitled to our different strategies and ideas how to improve the state. We have four years until the next elections, and I don’t think we can have the same dynamics. We’ll be entering a new phase and there’s much to do.”