What Beirut’s Election Results Tell: Lebanon Can Hope For Change

Beirut Madinati - bIERTE list 2016 2

This post was written with Elie Fares from A Separate State of Mind.

As promised earlier, this is the more detailed look at how Beirut voted, beyond the surprisingly great outing of the civil movement Beirut Madinati’s list, which even though it did not get actual seats, it still has plenty to celebrate.

It is important to note that in the most optimistic of cases, the chances for any list other than the list of the political parties to win was next to zero.

Despite the context of the trash crisis, rising corruption, overall voter discontentment, parliament extending its mandate twice, etc… the math of the Beirut electoral equation was never in favor of any non-political movement: the division of districts, the system, demographics, the sectarian propaganda – The Bierteh list had tried to attract voters – especially Christian ones – by proposing a 50-50 Christian/Muslim list, although Beirut Madinati had also kept the same quota.

So no, the cards were not the best that could be given for Beirut Madinati, or any other movement for that matter, simply because those cards were being played on a table that served only one side: the political establishment.

As a result of all of the above, the loudest of voters on Sunday was the low turnout.

20% Voted:

This is not a historically low number. In 2010, 18% of Beirutis voted. Beirutis simply do not vote in Municipal elections, and only do so at slightly higher numbers in parliamentary ones: 33% in 2009.

This is due to many factors. Voter learned helplessness is an important one, but so is the feel that there really isn’t a contest to begin with further increasing the sense of voter apathy. 33% voted in 1998, and the lower turnout since should be enough to tell you how much people lost faith.

Many partisan voters were also not willing to vote for the “zayy ma hiye” list but did not want to break lines.

Achrafieh El Bidayi:

Beirut Madinati won the Beirut 1 district with around 60% of the vote, a blow to the rallying calls of Christian parties in the area for their supporters to vote for the Bierti’s list. The 60% figure is not only exclusive to the mostly-Christian Beirut 1, but is also applicable to the Christian vote in the rest of Beirut.

This doesn’t mean the weight of the LF and FPM combined is 40%. Many LF and FPM leaning voters voted for Beirut Madinati more against Hariri, but it sets the precedence that politically affiliated people can go beyond their affiliations and vote in a way that breaks what they were instructed to do.

Boycotts from the bases of the FPM, LF, and Kataeb were also there on election day, as a sign of disagreement with the recent choices of their parties: The FPM electorate isn’t a fan of Hariri; the LF base isn’t a fan of an alliance with the FPM, and the Kataeb aren’t fans of anything.

This lack of enthusiasm was probably one of the causes of the lower turnout in Christian polling stations.

The context of such a vote, however, is probably not sectarian as is circulating. Achrafieh is one of Beirut’s higher socioeconomic areas, with higher income and education rates. You’ll probably see a similar phenomenon in the higher socio-economic districts of Beirut III. Those residents are more likely to vote for issues such as reform, transportation and trash sorting. Those are also the voters that are the less afraid of change.

Many if not all of Lebanon’s parties count on clientelism to widen their electoral base. In the higher socio-economic status, the reliance of the electorate on the mainstream parties will be less. Those voters don’t need their political parties in the neo-socialist way that most parties in Lebanon function. In Achrafieh, for example, the LF and FPM do not provide medical services, free education, job opportunities for Achrafieh voters as much as the other parties in other districts, so throughout the years, the electorate managed to develop an independence from traditional Christian parties.

The Example Of Tariq El Jdide: Anyone Can Be Reached

Sectarian talk is terrible, but is a necessary evil until the political system is not one where people go and vote in segregation based on how they pray. If you crunch Beirut’s numbers, you will end up with a rough figure of around 30% of the Sunni vote not going to Hariri.

This is probably as important, if not more, than BM winning 60% of the vote in Beirut 1.

I don’t believe we can call this a dissent from the Future Movement yet, but it is a continuation of the gradual and progressive Sunni dislike of the way Saad Hariri is running things, even with him having a rise of popularity after his return.

The reason the Future Movement won is not because voters are “sheep.” It’s because the Future Movement, through various governmental policies, has forced the people of many Sunni areas to always remain in need for their intervention to get the basic necessities that should be a right for every Lebanese citizen, which many in other areas have access to without needing their political parties: do not cut the hand that feeds you.

The political framework of the elections is important. They come at a time when Sunnis in Lebanon feel increasingly threatened by being categorized as potential-Islamists, to the background of a party in power fighting for a regime they do not approve of in Syria.

The need to not break rank was never greater. They may not approve of Hariri, but this was not the time to show it, and yet 30% did. The situation in the country is not one where sects have the prerogative to show cracks in their facade, or have we forgotten how Christians have also forced a seemingly unbreakable veneer over the past few months as well?

All of this makes the 30% figure of Sunnis who did not vote for Hariri all the more impressive and courageous. It’s the kind of percentage that breaks taboos.

Moving Forward:

The election’s overall results are telling. In Beirut I, the LF representative Elie Yahchouchi and the FPM’s Traboulsi lead their allies in the FM by around 800 votes (of around 6500 the list got). In Beirut II, with its important Shia and Armenian electorate, almost all of the winning candidates from LB are in the 9000 votes region. One candidate however, Amal’s representative, stands out as having 10000 votes. In the third district, Yahchouchi and Traboulsi are 5000 votes behind the FM’s candidates.

The difference between the first and the last of list is around 8000 votes for LB, and 3000 votes for BM. In other words, most of those who voted BM did not make major changes to their lists (“tochtib”) and were convinced with almost all of BM’s candidates, while the base of every single party in power was modifying the names.

That is the biggest proof that the ruling coalition is unstable, and that in 2017, even a minor split between the parties in power can lower that 60% and give way to an independent breakthrough. Check the results here.

But now is time to look ahead.

Our voting process needs to be modernized. 36 hours to go through Beirut’s voting results is a disgrace in 2016. There are no excuses.

The rhetoric we need to adopt should never call those who do not vote the way we want sheep or other varieties of animals. It is demeaning, and not any different than the system we want to change. Such horrific name-calling only alienates voters from your platform. The core of democracy is one where many will not vote the way you find is best.

Our rhetoric should also be more inclusive, and less elitist. Our bubble in which we believe our paradigm of Lebanese politics is scripture is exclusive to the people that are reached by our message, but the bulk of voters exist outside of that bubble. We need to be aware that what we know and believe is true doesn’t translate to others and work on reforming our message to make it holistic.

This means that calls to divide Beirut into smaller districts just because Achrafieh voted one way and Tariq el Jdide voted another are horrifyingly xenophobic. Beirut is a city that is 18 km2 with 500,000 voters only. It is too small to be divided. We need policies to bring people together, not segregate them into separate cantons.

Accomplishing so starts by championing policies to better the conditions of all Beirutis, especially those that exist in impoverished areas. Beirut Madinati did not, for instance, campaign as much as it should have in Tariq el Jdide.

Political parties in the country keep people at bay by keeping them afraid and hungry. Keep them as such, and they remain at their mercy. The first step in breaking this political hegemony is to make them need their political parties less: advocate for better schools, better and more comprehensive healthcare, fight economic inflation, raise the minimum wage, adopt a better taxing scheme, etc…

Such measures, however, cannot be done by simply complaining on Facebook. Modernizing our elections isn’t only about getting electronic voting machines, but also about having an electoral law that is fitting of the year 2016. The only law that can work to represent all different sections of Lebanon’s society is a law based on proportional representation. If such a law were adopted, for example, Beirut Madinati would have obtained 9 seats out of the available 24 on Sunday.

Proportional representation, as proposed during a cabinet meeting in 2010 tackling the municipal electoral law, is one of many reforms, such as electing the mayor directly from the people, and a 30% women quota, that are napping in parliament. The establishment is making it harder, but that shouldn’t mean that pressure should stop.

We also need to realize that, despite disagreeing with them, political parties are not going away. If we are to leave a mark, we have to find a framework in which we organize into a party that can compete better in elections, in politics and do so in unity: one of our biggest failings in this election was having like-minded people run on two different lists.

Today, we should be cautiously optimistic at what the future holds. Change in Lebanon is not a sudden process. It’s a tedious affair that needs planning over many years. Start planning for 2017’s parliamentary elections today and 2022’s municipal elections yesterday. Do not despair, and most importantly, always challenge the status quo regardless of how comfortable you are in it.

UPDATE 1 (Ramez here): This post was written before the ministry published the official results, and was based on the estimations of a table including BM votes and the establishment lists’ votes only (see Elie’s blog post). With more official detailed results made available for all candidates, the numbers become a bit different:  Nahas got 6000 votes, and many other candidates got thousands of votes. All in all, BM gets around 30% (not 40) and LB gets around 45% (not 60) of the 95000 who voted, which shows one more thing: That the establishment did not even get an absolute majority, and that BM and MMfidawla’s reach could have been far better to attract those voters who defected from the parties in power and did not vote with those two lists. The updated numbers aren’t necessarily bad for BM, but are extremely horrible for the establishment that couldn’t even secure an absolute majority in the overall vote of the capital, and we’re still talking about a 20% turnout. Another thing: The myth that “if Nahas and BM had joined forces they would have won” has been debunked: Nahas got the most votes on his list (6920), and Mneimneh got the most votes on BM’s side (319333). Even if we suppose that voters didn’t add Nahas’s name at all while voting BM (a lot of them did) which means that there aren’t common voters for the two, both lists would have still gotten a maximum of 38853 votes. That’s still lower than the lestablishment candidate with the lowest result, Yahchouchi, with 38989 votes. So succeeding wasn’t about alliances of anti-establishment parties as much as it was a difficulty in reaching potential voters, which is a shame.

I can go deeper with the analysis, but I’ll need more data, so if you spot detailed numbers (for every one of the 12 sub-districts), link me and I’ll be glad to crunch the data.

UPDATE 2 (Ramez again here): Even more detailed data is now available on the ministry’s website (by قلم and subdistrict). I’ll write something more detailed as soon as I can but I’m going to need some time to crunch the data (don’t expect anything before summer, there are hundreds of tables 😛 ).

Abdallah Azzam Brigades And Three Different Reactions

Image Credits :Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

Image Credits: Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

Abdallah Azzam Brigades (AAB) – An Al-Qaida affiliated group that carries the name of Abdallah Azzam, a.k.a. The Father Of Global Jihad – launched two rockets on an Israeli town, and in response, the Israeli Army attacks the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) in Nehmeh south of Beirut.

That’s me, 3 months ago. Back then, we all heard about this mysterious Abdallah Azzam Brigades launching rockets on the Israeli town. The Israelis responded by attacking a pro-Syrian regime party.  Yesterday, the same Al-Qaida affiliated group claimed responsibility for the twin suicide bombings against the Iranian embassy.

Three Different Reactions

For the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, this is very awkward. Iran decided to blame Israel for the bombings while Syria’s government said that the “attacks reek of petrodollars” – in other words accusing the gulf monarchies of the twin blasts. As for Hezbollah, an official of theirs at the site of the explosion said it was a message of blood and death to Iran and Hezbollah for standing by Syria, vowing they would not change their position.

While we are used to such accusations towards Israel in (sadly) similar  circumstances, there are some surprising reactions  this time. Syria is accusing Saudi-Arabia of being responsible, which is something rather new in Syria’s foreign policy in Lebanon. On the other side of the axis, Iran and Hezbollah kept  a usual tone, with Hezbollah staying rather silent, and Iran pointing the finger to Israel with no direct or indirect reference to the west.

Three Different  Contexts

Iran is heading this week to the nuclear negotiations in Geneva, and the blasts can used positively by the Rouhani administration. The rise of a mutual enemy, Al-Qaida, in a country that was for decades mainly under the west and Iran’s influence is a good reason for the two countries to work together. The proof? David Cameron called Rouhani yesterday and became the first U.K. prime minister to do that in a decade. And the nuclear negotiations weren’t apparently the only thing they spoke of. The embassy blasts were also included in the conversation.

For Syria, Saudi-Arabia’s military and financial support to the rebels is no longer a matter of local affair. The S/S (Saudi-Syria) equation that once administrated Lebanese politics is history. The more Saudi-Arabia grows its influence in Syria, the more Bashar Al-Assad will play his cards in Lebanon and diminish the Saudi influence in the neighboring country, starting by an escalated propaganda war against Saudi-Arabia. To accuse Saudi-Arabia of working against the “resistance” is something quite normal these days, but to blame them for a suicide bombing on an embassy is something far worse, and a very important change of discourse that is nevertheless not very surprising. We’re witnessing an unprecedented diplomatic crisis between the countries of the Middle East, and Lebanon is a natural playground for foreign powers. Iran and the U.S. are getting closer, Syria is on fire, and practically everyone – in a way or another – is now involved in Syria. The battles in Syria’s Qalamoun along with the blurry diplomatic alliances are the reasons behind Hezbollah’s cautious response and accusations regarding the blasts.

Abdallah Azzam Brigades

AAB’s founding father , Salih al-Qar’awi, was arrested by the Saudis and the AAB is known for having anti-regime stances in Saudi-Arabia. In Lebanon, the AAB launched several times rockets at Israel and recently attacked the Iranian embassy. In Syria the group is involved in the insurgency against Bashar Al-Assad. Unlike the Tripoli bombings and the southern suburb’s  August bombings, the two attacks against the embassy were suicide attacks which is kind of new to Lebanon. the AAB are clearly adopting a new strategy, and seem non affiliated (till now) to any foreign country, since they are launching attacks against everyone. So funnily enough, unlike the August bombings, no country is apparently (directly) involved in the embassy bombings, but everyone is using the blasts to reinforce his position.

Once again Lebanon is a mailbox. But this time, the mail is not the explosions per se, but the type of reactions and the accusations that followed the blasts.