Outsiders in Lebanon politics make a small win look big
BEIRUT (AP) — They won just one seat in Lebanon’s 128-seat national assembly, but they celebrated like they’d won 20. A grassroots movement of activists, journalists and other political newcomers said any presence in parliament was a landmark victory for its campaign against patronage in an era when politics is run as a family business.
Candidates and volunteers gathered at a Beirut shisha cafe erupted in cheers Sunday night when the first positive forecasts came in for the largest outsider campaign in recent memory — waged under the banner, “We are all Patriots,” or “Kulna Watani” in Arabic.
“I’m proud of all the volunteers and candidates who said ‘no’ to the face of the corrupt political class and to this vacuous political play we’ve been stuck in for years,” said Joumana Haddad, a novelist who campaigned on a platform of reforming Lebanon’s personal status laws that govern everything from marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody.
Initial results on Sunday had shown that Haddad and another candidate, journalist Paula Yacoubian, were projected to take two seats for Watani. But official results announced late Monday showed Haddad had been edged out by another candidate and Watani won just one seat.
Haddad’s supporters, gathered outside the Interior Ministry before the official results were released, protested what they maintained were clear signs of fraud to deny her victory.
“The people in power didn’t like this result, so they proceeded with rigging the result at the last minute,” said Lucian Bourjeily, a writer and director who ran as a Watani candidate.
It had been a long struggle for those running under the Watani banner, many involved in anti-establishment politics for years before Sunday’s vote.
They helped organize the protests that filled the capital in 2015 when a waste management scandal left trash uncollected in the streets for weeks. Environmental activists have accused politicians at the highest levels of arranging lucrative deals to bury trash without treatment or recycling.
“We learned we can succeed when we persevere,” said Bourjeily, who helped organize the 2015 protests.
Watani’s single-seat victory came in a district of Beirut, breaking a monopoly traditionally held by established political parties in the capital.
On Sunday, the activists allowed themselves an evening of relief, laughing and wiping away tears as they watched the projected results on TV.
“We changed the way people talk about politics in this country,” said Michelle Keserwany, half of a sister musical duo that has satirized Lebanon’s moribund political scene through their snappy lyrics and expertly produced videos.
“Candidates are now publishing programs to run on. It may sound obvious in other countries, but it’s these things we are demanding here,” Keserwany said.
In Lebanon, politics is about jobs and kickbacks more than it is about platforms. Since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war political bosses have held onto their seats through networks of patronage that supported the middle class with steady work that kept families above the poverty line but without avenues for self-advancement. In exchange, communities gave their patrons their votes and looked the other way as infrastructure crumbled and services decayed.
Their staying power was reinforced by a winner-takes-all voting system that worked against independents. Politicians bequeathed their seats to their sons and, less commonly, wives and daughters. To date many of the country’s top politicians are the warlords or heirs of the warlords of the civil war three decades ago.
That law was replaced this year with one awarding seats by proportional representation, but other complications worked to keep outsiders from taking a larger share.
Watani had fielded 66 candidates across nine of the country’s 15 districts. The new national assembly largely reproduces the one it replaces; leading politicians looked set to stay in their posts, while many newcomers hailed from decades-old family dynasties in Lebanese politics.
To Watani volunteers, the struggle for political reform is much larger than one election. They say they will run again in the next national race and win more seats as voters get acquainted with the alternative.
“We started this election with having no seats in parliament, so every seat is a win for us,” Bourjeily said.