BEIRUT — Michel Aoun’s election as president on Oct. 31 ended the longest presidential vacancy in Lebanon’s history, and with that and Saad Hariri’s appointment as prime minister, Lebanese are now turning their attention to next summer’s parliamentary elections. After parliament extended its term for a second consecutive time in 2014, new groups arose to challenge the powers that have traditionally dominated Lebanon’s government, making for a potentially historic election.
A series of popular movements emerged out of the 2015 garbage protests, channeling protesters’ demands and presenting voters with political alternatives. Although Lebanese civil society groups have thus far fallen short of their objectives of winning elections and deciding government policy, they have inspired a new wave of Reformist parties that could for the first time realistically contest the current political elite at the parliamentary level.
Sami Atallah, executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, said an array of new parties is gearing up for the elections. “Definitely there is an excitement,” he told Al-Monitor. “There are so many groups. I know of at least 20, and there is probably another 10 or 15 that I don’t know of, maybe another 20. Some of them are new, some of them are old, some of them are doing other things — but they want to run, so there is sort of an intoxication with this.”
“‘Beirut Madinati did it, we can do it,’” he said, explaining the new groups' hopes and referring to a new party that ran in the municipal elections last year. “But it’s hard, it’s not going to be a picnic. There are many groups, but I don’t know what the success rate is going to be.”
The fate of Lebanon’s nascent popular movements will depend in part on their ability to learn from the shortcomings of their predecessors and establish a unified front. Like You Stink, one of the most prominent groups in the garbage protests, the Reformists will likely have to navigate a gauntlet of external threats. According to Carmen Geha, an assistant professor of public administration at the American University of Beirut, the garbage protest movements were unable to further mobilize supporters because of media attacks, government co-optation and the threat of physical force from the country's dominant parties.
Nonetheless, the social momentum generated by You Stink’s campaign encouraged the formation of Beirut Madinati, a grassroots party that Atallah said represents the first time Lebanese civil society has seriously contested the traditional parties in elections. The party also faced opposition from Charbel Nahas’ Citizens Within a State list, which ran on a similar secular and reformist platform. Although Beirut Madinati surpassed expectations, attracting 40% of the vote in Beirut, Lebanon’s majoritarian electoral law prevented it from taking any seats in the municipal government.
Tarek Ammar, who ran as Beirut Madinati’s vice mayor, told Al-Monitor that the group considered participating in the 2017 elections, but decided against the idea on Oct. 29. “As Beirut Madinati, for the time being, we decided not to go into parliament because of the many responsibilities we have, because of the structure we have,” he explained. “However, it doesn’t mean that Beirut Madinati’s members are not active or working on the parliamentary election.”
In light of the challenges You Stink and Beirut Madinati faced in the past year, some civil society groups are now looking to form coalitions to bolster their competitiveness in the 2017 balloting. Among them is Sabaa, a new organization that made waves with a $60,000 marketing campaign before announcing its formation at a press conference Oct. 19.
Sabaa spokesperson Assad Douiahy told Al-Monitor that one of the group’s primary objectives is to establish a model of participatory democracy that others can follow. The concept, he said, centers around ensuring democratic governance within the party — for example, choosing party leaders through an election process and engaging constituents in identifying community issues and drafting policy solutions. To that end, Douiahy said Sabaa will soon reveal a mobile polling app that will enable users to communicate directly with Sabaa members. Utilizing this participatory approach, Douiahy hopes his group can form partnerships with other parties and draft strategies in pursuit of their goals, such as adoption of an electoral law based on proportional representation.
Douiahy noted that Sabaa might not run in the summer elections, depending on its readiness, but he encourages others to join forces. “They [parties] need to unite, whether under a fair electoral law or not. They need to unite. I mean, not like what happened with Beirut Madinati and [Charbel] Nahas. It was a very bad experience.”
Nadine Moussa, president of the Citizens' Movement, told Al-Monitor that her party is interested in coalition forming even if her party's candidates don’t make it onto the ballot. “It is not about candidates or persons; it is about the right criteria for the selection of the candidates,” she said. “We are not going to run just to have a seat.”
She added, “People are sick and tired of such opportunistic politicians. They want ... real public services. They want people who really represent them, who have really suffered their suffering.”
The United Lebanese League is another anti-establishment party hoping to reduce corruption, increase transparency and pursue liberal priorities such as civil rights. Party founder Rabih Chafi said his group is also looking to build a coalition with organizations that share similar platforms.
“There are a lot of potential candidates that are ready,” Chafi told Al-Monitor. “A lot of people who are independent of a political group want to run on their own, and the intention is to basically bring these people together to form a coalition in order to make a national proclaimed, national movement.”
Despite the reformist parties having similar goals, it remains unclear whether they will be able to agree on common strategies and tactics if united under a coalition. According to Geha, if such a coalition emerges as a realistic challenge to the traditional parties, they should expect steep resistance from the current power holders.
“You can imagine, at the national level, what the two coalitions [March 14 and March 8] will do if there is a serious opponent,” Geha said. “‘Okay, I have people, and I have money and mobilization; it’s serious, we can actually win.’ I think they might postpone the elections. I think they might co-opt it. I think they might rig the result.”