09 October, 2016

Did Beirut Madinati Permanently Change Lebanon’s Electoral Scene?

J. Chaaban, D. Haidar, R. Ismail, R. Khoury and M. Shidrawi

Jad Chaaban is an Associate Professor of Economics at the American University of Beirut. This article was jointly written with Diala Haidar, Rayan Ismail, Rana Khoury and Mirna Shidrawi, all founding members and/or activists within the Beirut Madinati Municipal Elections Campaign, an anti-sectarian electoral bloc in the municipal elections of the Lebanese capital in May 2016.


In an article published by The Economist on May 11 2016, the magazine predicted that Lebanon’s political newcomer “Beirut Madinati’s impressive share [in municipal electoral votes] may be enough to give it momentum to make next year’s general election a lot more interesting.[1]” Although legislative elections are different in both form and in content from municipal ones Beirut Madinati made change possible, which could well impact national elections. This hope for a snowball effect, however, must not be taken for granted and the gains of Beirut Madinati should not be limited to an illusion of change. For this reason, the results of the municipal elections should be studied so that actual gains might be made, and a way forward identified.

Lebanon’s Municipal Elections Take Place in Context of Local and Regional Turmoil

Lebanon’s post-war politics left a tenuous political legacy. This is characterized by perpetual discord, accommodation between dissenting factions that have exposed the country to foreign meddling, hardened sectarian identities and entrenched modes of political mobilization.  Such a political quagmire means political parties have transgressed state institutions instead of building them, and political elites have managed to exploit a weak yet centralized state in order to maintain entrenched clientelist and neopatrimonial networks that penetrate all public and private spheres. Political elites have co-opted labor unions and syndicates, penetrated civil society organizations, designed electoral laws that reproduce the status quo, and built a lopsided rentier economy that consolidates the socioeconomic and political power of the sectarian system and sustains its patronage network.

Whenever the private interests of the ruling elite or those of their regional backers compete with conflicting priorities, the country is driven into complete political paralysis until a political settlement is reached with regional backing. The resulting overlap of domestic and regional contests—particularly in the wake of the Arab uprisings reaching Syria and Hezbollah—put the country in an even tighter political gridlock.[2]

Hezbollah’s decision to enter the Syrian conflict on the side of Bashar al-Assad exacerbated Lebanon’s already precarious sectarian tensions, with pressures mounting during alleged security threats. These gave two consecutive opportunities for Lebanon's members of parliament to extend their powers in a stark breach of the constitution. Partially as a result of these extended mandates the parliament has failed to elect a new president for the Republic. This has left the cabinet paralyzed, and unable to effectively respond to any of the country's proliferating challenges. The most notorious of these is the nation’s rubbish crisis, with mismanagement of waste sites seeing actual mountains of garbage grow on the streets of Beirut, provoking a three-month protest movement in Beirut during the summer of 2016.

Municipal Elections: A Chance to Change the System from Within  

In the context of Lebanon’s political impasse and its citizens’ growing disenchantment with a faltering system, municipal elections appeared as an opportunity. Scheduled to take place in May 2016, actors hoped to use the elections to re-launch the constitutional processes and save the remnants of a functioning democracy that was put on hold.

Municipalities, their role and jurisdiction, came under the spotlight after the summer garbage crisis and the utter failure of the cabinet to address the problem with a national strategy. What emerged out of that failure was a re-evaluation of alternative options, which in turn led to an assessment of what other actors might step in to remedy the situation—municipalities seemed a viable option. The Municipal Act of 1977 gave municipalities financial and administrative independence, setting them up as legal entities responsible for all the local activities and provision of public services that fall within their jurisdiction. However, although municipal councils were endowed with this power, the electoral law and the power-sharing arrangement among the sects curtailed their ability to act on many occasions.

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[1] “Beirut shocks its old guard”, The Economist, May 11, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21698599-established-leaders-are-jolted-party-protest-beirut-shocks-its-old-guard   

[2] The military wing of Hezbollah –which is part of Lebanon’s parliament and cabinet—decided to intervene militarily in Syria to prop up the Assad regime.