Lebanon election: Can independents offer a real alternative? | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 05.05.2018
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Lebanon election: Can independents offer a real alternative?

Promising a non-sectarian and honest government, dozens of civil society candidates have entered Lebanon's parliamentary election fray. Who are they and can they mobilize young voters? Anchal Vohra finds out.

Gilbert Doumit is bar hopping, with noble intentions.

Every Saturday evening, the aspiring politician goes pub crawling in downtown Beirut, to mix and mingle with first-time voters, hoping to win them over for his cause. The middle-aged Maronite is asking the young men and women, "What are you doing on May 6"? 

Gilbert is referring to the day of the election, when Lebanon goes to the polls for the first time in almost a decade in 15 districts that represent 128 parliamentary seats. He is contesting from the Christian-dominated district of Beirut I, the poshest area in the capital and popular with young party-goers. Gilbert is busy reaching out to voters who are least likely to cast their ballot.

"Every established political party is targeting the set number of sectarian votes, we are not," he says sipping on Al-Mazza, a local beer. "We are anti-establishment and we are focusing on the voters who want change but are skeptical about the benefits of elections," he tells DW.  

One of the 66 civil society candidates who've agree on a common political platform, Gilbert is fighting the elections under the umbrella of Kilna Watani or "All for the nation." 

Oriented toward resolving civic issues, his activism took shape in 2015 when Beirutis formed Beirut Madiniti or "Beirut is my city," to encourage the government to resolve the perennial garbage crisis. Gilbert was a leading protester and a member of Beirut Madiniti. The group first fielded candidates in the municipal elections two years ago and did well but fell short of a majority.

This year, Lebanon changed the law to reflect proportional representation, giving the activists an incentive to enter the race. The new system, conceivably, gives them a bigger chance of entering the parliament.

 A new law provides hopes and challenges

Under the new law, voters will be presented with different lists to choose from for a specific number of seats in a district. Each list is made up of several candidates. Voters can opt for one of the competing lists and also a preferential candidate. To win a seat in the district, a list must obtain a minimum number of votes or it will be eliminated.

Gilbert has faith that Kilna Watani's lists will make the cut and gain the minimum number of votes required to get at least some of the seats.

"Our lists have only civil society candidates," he tells a Lebanese woman at a restaurant. "That reflects our integrity."  

The established political powers are concerned that this could cause a dent in their final tally. To outmaneuver the new system, different political parties are forming strange alliances and cobbling together lists of candidates based on a suitable sectarian equation rather than on common ideas or goals. Even though they're based on proportionality, seats are still reserved on a confessional basis for different sects of Christians and Muslims.

Adnan Melki, a former secretary-general of Lebanon's association for democratic elections, says that "enemies across the political spectrum have come together in lists, fielding a combination of candidates most likely to win on sectarian grounds."

Kilna Watani is also proposing secular candidates and promises to rid the country of its deep-rooted problems of sectarianism and rampant corruption. But do they have the wherewithal to take on the political giants?

 Taking on the giants

 Among the huge hoardings and election posters plastered around Lebanon, few represent the civil society candidates.

Days before polling, their presence on television is negligible. "It is very hard to be on TV, they charge exorbitant sums," says Gilbert, handing out pamphlets to cars driving past. "A TV channel asked me for $10,000-15,000 (€8,330-12,500) for a few minutes on-air. We don't have that kind of money."

Candidates like Gilbert are relying on personal savings and funds from friends to campaign, making it difficult to reach hundreds of thousands of voters in their constituencies.  

Election analysts in Lebanon say internal divisions will also cost the civil society candidates heavily. The unity displayed during the municipal elections has not survived and in the nation-wide polls the activists are split in several groups. Kilna Watani is the largest coalition of such actors but it is not the only one.

"Even in Kilna Watani, they don't agree on issues at a very broad level, say on what to do with Hezbollah — there are many disagreements," says Melki.

Hezbollah remains a touchy issue

Hezbollah is a touchy topic. Gilbert says there is no dispute over the need for the militia to end Lebanon's engagement in the Syrian war and that they must surrender their arms to the Lebanese army.

Read moreAli, Lebanese Uber driver and Hezbollah fighter

Gilbert wants Hezbollah's powers curtailed and proposes a five-step approach involving overhauling the Lebanese army and the country's economy. One of the ideas he suggests is controversial. He says Hezbollah should be replaced with citizens' fighting groups that would aid the army. But taking away powers from one militia merely to pass them to another could be seen as magnifying the problem rather than resolving it.  

Gilbert's participation in the elections to stop foreign meddling and to change the character of Lebanese politics can at best be seen as an experiment at this stage. The civil-society candidates may not have all the answers yet, and may turn out to be just a city phenomenon, but by taking part they're hoping to display the Lebanese grit to stay on course to fix some of their country's shortcomings. 

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