Lebanese Municipal Elections Spark Initial Optimism despite Low Turnout

Photo Credit: Daily Star Lebanon

For the first time since 2010, Lebanon held municipal elections to elect the country’s local governing bodies, and subsequent rounds are scheduled throughout the month of May. These elections were not only the first elections to take place since the beginning of the “You Stink” campaign or the Syrian refugee crisis, but it was also the first time that a list of technocratic independents not belonging to the political elites had a viable opportunity to contest the established framework. Despite some optimism about the polls, turnout was reportedly quite low, with estimates at around 20 percent.

The independent list, known as Beirut Madinati, consisted of professors, architects, engineers, and artists with and evenly divided representation of men, women, Muslims, and Christians. The group ran on a 10-point platform focused primarily on “quality-of-life issues” such as traffic, greenery in the public space, and waste management. They reportedly refused funding or help from veteran politicians. Beirut Madinati ultimately lost to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s “Beirutis” – garnering 40 percent of the vote but gaining no seats in Lebanon’s “winner-take-all,” first-past-the-post system – the election demonstrated that, “In a country and a region where sectarian discourse often dominates both political campaigns and political analysis, this grassroots campaign is a potent reminder that change, even slow and incremental, is indeed possible.”

And while the outcome may ultimately have a relatively minor impact, given local government’s modest budget and “limited influence over planning in the city,” the elections are considered by some to be a potential watershed moment in Lebanon’s political trajectory. As Thanassis Cambanis explained, it was an election with “high symbolic value,” one that “touched a nerve” in Beirut and fueled the “conviction that it is possible to buck the Arab world’s trend toward authoritarianism.” Lebanon has been without a president for two years and its Parliament has extended its mandate multiple times, however as Paul Salem remarked, the fact that elections were held and ran smoothly undermines a traditionally employed argument that Lebanon is still “too sensitive” to hold elections, given its recent and neighboring civil war. Chatham House’s Lina Khatib and Bassem Deaibiss suggested, “Although Beirut Madinati did not win on Sunday, it remains the first time that such an initiative has been undertaken in Lebanon, and the political elites were worried about it enough to unite against it.”

According to analyst Amanda Rizkallah, municipal councils lost most of their influence during the Lebanese civil war. Funding for municipal governments, of which there are over 900 throughout Lebanon, is supposed to be based on the size of its population, however endemic corruption and a lack of transparency within the Lebanese government “plagues the distribution process.” Beirut Madinati’s platform attacked corrupt deals that have cut off public access to waterfront land and degraded the quality of Beirut’s public service, and demanded greater decentralization and fiscal resources to be distributed more generously among the municipal councils–a demand particularly relevant because municipalities have become the “de facto frontline” for dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis.

The country’s oft-delayed parliamentary elections are supposed to be scheduled within the next year, and many supporters of Beirut Madinati are hoping that the party expands nationwide and will continue to rid Lebanese politics of the sectarianism and corruption it was saddled with in recent years.