May 3, 2018 / 3:54 PM / 5 months ago

In Lebanon vote, activists face warlords, powerful political dynasties

BEIRUT (Reuters) - An unlikely bunch of activists have joined forces for Lebanon’s general election in a rare challenge to the sectarian political dynasties and warlords they say left the country in ruins.

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gestures as he addresses his supporters from a screen during a rally, in Beirut, Lebanon, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/Files

A pharmacist, a women’s rights advocate, and a TV celebrity are part of a loose alliance striving for a small but meaningful breakthrough in the vote this Sunday, the first in nine years.

Lebanese elections have never seen this many independent candidates, with dozens from outside the parties that dominate the country. They stand against a political elite which has barely changed since the 1975-90 civil war.

They hope a new voting system will help them unseat at least some of the old guard, and want to tap into anger that fuelled a wave of anti-government protests in 2015.

“Their failure is our chance,” said Gilbert Doumit, who is running in Beirut against the incumbent Nadim Gemayel, the son of one of Lebanon’s most prominent war leaders. “We want to get our causes into the parliament.”

The old order, built on powerful families and past militia chiefs, has sought to regenerate itself again ahead of this election, with fathers making way for sons or relatives.

The newcomers face massive hurdles in the parliamentary contest and could win a handful of seats at best.

Yet even that would mark a first. They believe it is time to build on public despair, which sparked the 2015 protest movement when piles of trash festered in the streets for months.

The garbage symbolised a corrupt power-sharing system unable to meet basic needs, and later helped Beirut activists do surprisingly well in municipal polls, though they did not win.

AN UPHILL STRUGGLE

“No doubt, change will not happen in 24 hours, but the elections are one of the main stops,” said Doumit, 42, a consultant who has been pounding the streets of mainly Christian east Beirut for weeks.

He is contesting a seat reserved for a Maronite Christian in an assembly which parcels out 128 seats among the many religious sects.

Doumit is part of the wide coalition of 66 candidates in nine electoral districts. Smaller blocs are also vowing to fight the establishment across the 15 total districts.

Some have worked for years to remedy the state’s failures. Others rose to prominence after the trash crisis, or came from local fame like talk show host Paula Yaacoubian.

But Doumit’s district was long a stronghold of the Gemayel family and their Kateab party, which was founded by Nadim’s grandfather in 1936 and is now led by his cousin Sami.

Nadim’s father, Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated in Beirut after being elected president during Israel’s 1982 invasion. Images of his father cover the walls of his offices.

Gemayel, who is expected to keep the votes of big families with old Kateab ties, has also tried to target young voters.

The new faces have a shot as people want alternatives, but their politics falls short, he said. They lack united or clear stances, including on critical issues like the powerful arsenal of Iran-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah, he added.

“Soon, civil society will enter parliament,” he said of the independents. “They will not be able to achieve anything more than (we) did. They will have to share in the establishment.”

He said he does not view himself as a political heir but sees nothing wrong with them if they serve Lebanon.

PASSING ON THE BATON

Gemayel, 35, became an MP in 2009 when his mother, Solange, made way for him. Outside Beirut, this election will see other establishment families pass on the baton.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Maronite politician Suleiman Franjieh are stepping aside for their sons. President Michel Aoun’s two son-in-laws are battling for Maronite seats.

The new proportional law has replaced a winner-takes-all system, scrambling alliances among the ruling parties. Critics say the law was still crafted to suit traditional heavyweights, although it may open the door for new faces.

Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center said the protest movements after 2015 had failed to produce real political powers that can challenge the old order.

Long-time activists accuse some independents of allying with officials close to the establishment to boost their chances.

First-timers do not enjoy a level playing field. Incumbent parties wield patronage, handing out government jobs, own hospitals and TV stations, or receive regional funding, he said.

In the Beirut district where Doumit and Gemayel face off, all is not lost for independents, partly because its relatively well-off electorate can afford to reject the establishment.

For the working class though, “their lifeline passes through the traditional parties,” Hage Ali said. Anyone who wants to contest the elite has to offer viable alternatives. “This is where the real competition is, these are the people.”

Supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) carry flags and banners during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, September 4, 2015. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/Files

Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Tom Perry, William Maclean

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