Lebanon's political structures have resulted in a free market for corruption and lack of accountability in governing parties. Could this be about to change?
It’s a rare event when locals in Lebanon are just as confused as the foreign pundits when it comes to the current state of affairs. But these days, the Lebanese, it seems, are baffled about their own new electoral laws, as the country sheepishly heads towards the polls for the first time in nine years.
As if living in a country where people habitually drive around cities at night with their lights on full beam, or where women book an appointment at the sun lounge before heading to the beach, wasn’t vexing enough for foreign hacks. Now it’s the new electoral law which has us stumped as we try and ask the Lebanese to explain it.
They can’t, and I don’t blame them.
Because of this perplexing issue, an entire country will vote for its leaders in a system it doesn’t really understand, in an election where candidates don’t even bother to state their manifestos, and one which is mired in rumours of them collectively spending up to a billion dollars in bribery.
In Lebanon it is quite common for the political elite to give cash to voters, sometimes even as much as $5,000.
It’s as though there's an outcry for change.
It’s not clear if a shake up of the political infrastructure could bring any change as new MPs might well just be new faces replacing the old guard. But what is clear is that democracy has little to do with these polls.
Of course having elections themselves gives the elite the opportunity to bask in the amiable light of foreign powers, while those same 'Lords of Poverty' turn a blind eye to protestors being beaten up and thrown in military jails, poets arrested for their ramblings, and bloggers regularly thrown in the nick for having an opinion which doesn’t chime with the big fellah.
Lebanon can only dream of a lingering of democracy in years gone by, and the rule by militias and warlords has forced many Lebanese into trivialising the democratic process.
The country is essentially run by five CEOs (of Lebanon incorporated) who consider the state as their own boardroom to plunder as much from as is possible, while a sixth leader (who is ideological and doesn’t feed from the same trough) strangely seems to garner the most respect. Funny that.
The gang of five has assiduously invested in the corruption, nepotism and a model of governance focused on insecurity.
President Aoun, when coming into office, saw the need for an electoral shake up. This would weaken the alliance which until now ensures that state operations become inflated where multi-million dollar lucrative contracts cover everything from garbage collection to getting your car checked for its roadworthiness.
Wasta (corrupt kinship or nepotism) has taken over Lebanon as a counterweight to the plundering of the country’s assets.
Perhaps the new bill might curtail it. It still keeps the post-civil war 50-50 allocation between Muslims and Christians (64 seats each), but stipulates that members of parliament must be elected by proportional representation in reorganised districts (versus the current winner-take-all approach).
It’s ‘proportional representation’ which is supposed to be a more accurate model of voting for candidates – one, I might add which is used by the European Union and which made UKIP in the UK.
Across fifteen constituencies, seats are allocated per district based on religious affiliation. Voters will have two votes – one for party, the other for a preferred candidate within that party's list. Seats will be allocated by list percentage received.
So, a more precise model, which some argue will do away with some candidates getting voted in by other voting groups of a different confessional line. You get the picture.
Does the house always win?
But the tough bit is no one has a clue what the outcome will be for tiny Lebanon which is currently experiencing something new at the moment: peace.
For almost five years there hasn’t been an assassination and illegal gun prices are vexing dealers as they hit bargain basement prices.
So why the shake up? Who are the winners and losers? No one can give me a clear answer although it is clear that there are two prevalent ideas which emerge and which are at odds with one another.
One is that smaller parties and independents might have better access to the parliament; the other, by contrast, is that the large political blocks will grab even more power and so the consolidation process would be self defeating.
Key questions are whether Hezbollah will gain even more power or whether the Sunni block will resort to skirmishes after the election, as some fear that Saad Hariri will be relieved of a few of his seats.
But the wrangle should not centre on Hezbollah grabbing more seats.
The question is whether this new system will indirectly intensify the confessional lines through block voting. People are now talking about Hezbollah and its other Shia parties joining forces in the parliament to block veto any new legislation – effectively making Hezbollah dominant.
It’s all pretty confusing and leaves many Lebanese hacks here scratching their gray beards when they try to explain it. But if new independent MPs join the Lebanese parliament – an institution entirely bereft of accountability, debate or joined up thinking (let alone speaking) – then perhaps the embryo of a democracy may emerge along with a fourth estate which is prepared to support a new level of accountability of the state.
Meanwhile I meet a man who is angry that his own political group hasn’t contacted him yet to give him 3,000 bucks for his vote. He fortuitously tells me that he has had his eyes set on a new bells-n-whistle machine gun for around the same price. Lebanon’s bid for Europe style democracy? Bang bang, my baby shot him down.
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