Parliamentary elections are coming, and groups of hopeful upstarts are forming (one even financed what must be a rather expensive national billboard campaign) with an eye on defeating as many establishment candidates as possible. The challenges for such an undertaking are many and significant, so an effective strategy is paramount.
The first challenge facing outsiders will be the law governing the election itself. While parliament is currently debating reforms to the law, what exists on the books – and will be used in 2017 unless it’s amended or completely replaced – is the so-called 1960 law. It’s often described as a “winner-takes-all” system. Reformers want Lebanon instead to use proportional representation. There’s an important nuance related to the confessional nature of Lebanon’s system that we can’t forget, however. Parliamentary seats in Lebanon are not only divided by district, they’re divided by sect as well.
It’s easy to look at a district with nine seats and surmise that proportional representation might make it possible for the MPs elected to represent March 14, March 8 and independents (to use simple labels for illustrative purposes only). However, those 9 seats are actually 4 Sunni seats, 3 Shia seats, one Maronite seat and one Greek Orthodox seat (again, illustrative purposes only). So in that district, proportional representation would actually only apply to 7 of the 9 seats (one seat can’t be divided). Getting rid of sectarian seat distributions won’t happen this time around, so we have to recognize this nuance, especially if parliament ends up endorsing a hybrid “winner-takes-all”/proportional representation law. Whether districts are drawn to limit the impact of proportional representation (i.e., having it only apply in contests where it can do the least damage) or parties run multiple lists to drown out candidates they disapprove of, a new law is not a guarantee that non-establishment candidates will win in significant numbers. Activists need to follow this debate closely and exert any influence they can to tip the scales in their favor. Pinning hopes only on the chances of a new law opening up opportunities is nowhere near enough.
Entrenched political parties have created a culture of dependency. Voters don’t choose a parliamentarian because he or she is most qualified or can deliver development projects or economic revitalization to a district. Current MPs and the parties they represent deal more in personal favors than district-wide benefits. This is an exploitable weakness, but it will require serious time and effort by local candidates.
By all accounts, one of Beirut Madinati’s strengths was engaging with residents and finding out what their needs were to develop their electoral platform. Rumors on the street have it that a few parliamentary hopefuls are doing just that in advance of the 2017 polls. This is laudable and must continue. The parties cannot have bought everyone off. We have no public statistics to point to, but reason alone suggests there’s a class of voters who will respond to the argument that eight years after the last parliamentary election, their lives are worse and have been made no better by the district MPs. Here is also where what activists say they can achieve will be essential. Empty electoral promises are meaningless and usually easily identified as such.
Start small, be transparent
A number of this country’s problems are surprisingly easy to solve, if there’s political will to solve them. Executive has been pointing out ways to make Lebanon a better place to live for nearly 20 years now. At the height of anti-establishment protests last summer, we even produced a quick guide to our problems as well as their potential solutions. Elected officials have ignored their duties in the past four years. Wise activists would remind people of this over and over, pointing out how easy it could be to make this country a much better place with the right leaders in place. There’s no need to promise the moon, just to fill a few potholes. And transparency should be a cornerstone of every commitment. Politicians in power love to say they know hidden secrets about corruption and threaten to reveal them time and again. They yell at journalists who question them instead of engaging in real debate. Promises to name names and blow whistles once in power would no doubt go a long way and also set a proper precedent for the whole experiment. If activists end up winning seats, they’ll only have been able to do so by convincing people they deserve them. Once in power, betraying that trust will bring us back to where we are today.