elections 09


As most followers of all things Lebanese know, a unity government headed by Saad Hariri has been formed after five months of… well, formation. Ziad Baroud is going to retain his position as Minister of Interior (president’s share) and that is good news. But there is even better news: The Free Patriotic Movement has chosen no other than economist, activist, and intellectual Sharbil Nahhas for the post of Minister of Telecommunications. To those of you not familiar with Sharbil Nahhas, his website (trilingual) gives a good idea of his qualifications. Nahhas is a reformer in spirit with a fundamental critique and understanding of our sectarian system. Over the past two decades, Nahhas has put together several proposals, such as a strategy for social development and a law proposal for a pension scheme, that, needless to say, never made it through the system. As the inside man, there is reason to hope a little.

Other than Baroud and Nahhas, there are actually some good choices in this makeup (by “good” I mean people who are actually into “governing” while in government). Rayya Haffar al-Hassan (Future Movement) came in as first Lebanese female minister of Finance ever and one of two women in the unity government. No fundamental change is going to come from these quarters. She has been schooled by Hariri and Sanioura and, as she herself has declared, she intends to follow similar financial policies. But to be realistic, she is competent and one can hope this will reflect on the ever ballooning public debt. Fadi Abboud (FPM, tourism) and Hassan Mnaymnah (Future Movement, education) are also promising choices. As for Amal, Hizballah, and Junblat, they have mostly exhibited characteristic lack of creativity in their choice of ministers.

There has also been a lot of focus in the media on Hariri’s snub to the Kataeb. The Gemayyel party has been dealt what is regarded in Lebanon as a third rate ministry, namely Social Affairs. There are two things to note here. The first is that far from being a shock, this comes as the culmination of the problems Kataeb has been having with March 14, not just Hariri. The second point is summarized succinctly by Khaled Saghiyah in today’s al-Akhbar: “The government to Hariri is like the weapons to Hizballah; you can support it as an ally but you cannot partake of it.”

Next on the agenda, a Hariri pilgrimage to Damascus to be followed by a Junblat chaser.

For some reason, some native intellectuals insist on adopting the reductionist model of backwardness vs. progress to explain politics in Lebanon today. The latest incarnation is an op-ed by Hazim Saghiyah (not to be confused with the nephew, Khalid) published in Meow Lebanon. Referring to an electoral speech delivered by Jubran Basil, Saghiyah explains:

This distinction between “the materialism of the West” and “the spiritualism of the East” is not new, nor is it monopolized by the Lebanese. What is new is that it is now emanating from a political party [the Free Patriotic Movement] that continuously expresses its attachment to modernity and to “reform and change.” But Hizballah has already, in its last electoral program, announced “fighting vice” as one of its points […]

[…] There are therefore, regardless of the election and its results and away from politics in its daily and common conception, signs of a cultural alliance, one might say, between the two parties of Mar Mkhayel [signatories of the memorandum of understanding]. And the direct enemy of this alliance is: freedom and progress.

For an intellectual, Saghiyah is incredibly ignorant of Middle Eastern intellectual history. The distinction between the materiality of the West and the spirituality and values of the East is not meeting its modernist and reformist counterpart for the first time. It is precisely the product of a modern condition and a modern reorganization of knowledge that attempted to shore up and define a disempowered “East” against a politically, economically, and militarily powerful “West.” A counter-Orientalism, if you will, belonging to the time of al-nahdah (late 19th century Arab “renaissance”).

But what is more interesting is the political expediency to Saghiyhah’s intellectual musings. By branding the Free Patriotic Movement and Hizballah as the darkest relics of the past, their opponents emerge as champions of “freedom and progress.” On what he means by that, he explains: “[…] the most important foundations and characteristics of Lebanon, as in opening up to the Arab and western worlds, as well as in its economy and prosperity.” When defined in this truncated manner, one is tempted to follow up with the conclusion that Gulf states are beacons of freedom and progress!

This watered down definition eschews — perhaps unwittingly — more common and fundamental aspects of “freedom and progress” such as democratic practices and representation, freedom of the press and the media, a redistribution of economic opportunities, a structure of rights and duties, etc… etc… Naturally so, because if Saghiyah were to highlight these instead, one would be hard pressed to find a place for March 14 in their midst. But the only way to grant March 14 the cultural legitimacy and civilizational mission that it claims for itself — without questioning it or questioning the regional power structure behind it — is to cast its opponents as partners in an anti-modern, cultural alliance.

Though these cultural claims to civilization are not new in Lebanon, they have persisted over the past few years in a very bare and highly politicized form. Today, however, there were hints in the Lebanese media of a possible reshuffling of alliances that is to take place in the coming weeks. If this reshuffling were indeed to happen, it would be interesting to watch where leftists-turned-liberals such as Hazim Saghiyah will turn to next.

In case you are still wondering why exactly Minister of Interior, Ziad Baroud’s proposal for pre-printed ballots was vehemently opposed by Amal, Hizballah, the Lebanese Forces, and the Future Movement:

What happens is that the campaign machines themselves print a list of candidates that they want you to put in the ballot box, and distribute it. That sounds harmless, but it’s the key device to track votes. Most people vote in villages, where you have rarely more than 2,000 voters, who are further subdivided by sect and by family register numbers. So if in a given voting room you have ten major families, they will distribute ten different versions of the same list to those families — different in font, name order, etc. During vote count, the election monitors of the various candidates inspect any single ballot paper, and they track exactly how many copies of what version ended up in the box. And after the elections, they may come to the head of that family and tell him: hey — we promised you to pay the tuition for your nephew, we settled your cousin’s hospital bill — why didn’t you guys vote for us?

There is another ingenious device to insure people vote the way they are supposed to or paid to: the “rent-an-ID” method. Basically, you are paid a certain sum of money in return for giving up your national identity card until election day. Then, on the appointed day, you are met by a representative who hands you your ID and a ballot, making sure you drop the latter “as is” (mitil/zayy ma hiyyi).

Just when you thought you had seen the last of him, here he goes again. With elections in Lebanon and Iran within a week of each other, why not reflect on democracy:

There are rumors about large amounts of Saudi money floating in to support the victorious March 14 coalition, but so what? Hezbollah gets at least $200 million a year from Iran. It is striking that the losers are not crying foul; they too agree the election was fundamentally fair.

As long as everyone agrees that foreign interference and ridiculous amounts of money being thrown around are the order of the day, it must be free and fair elections. Just another day in the life of Elliot Abrams. Read all about it.

With Amal and Hizballah reaffirming their presence in their districts and Sulayman Franjiyah reconsolidating his fiefdom in Zgharta, the biggest losers in these elections have been the Free Patriotic Movement. Though they still represent a considerable chunk of the Christians, the shock of the decline since 2005 against all expectations and predictions is still reverberating.

Critiques of “what went wrong” abound, and Khalid Saghiyah rises to the occassion again with a sharp one. He criticizes ongoing attempts to justify the electoral loss, including the appeal to the popular vote, stressing instead the need for introspection on several levels: the sectarian discourse, the divisive electoral law, and the “glorious day” (May 7th, 2008).

But he also nails down other blunders:

  • Hizballah’s resignation when it comes to its Sunni allies, who have been left to their own devices. Hizballah “bet instead on the Christian horse” leaving the Sunnis feeling besieged.
  • The inability to transform the memorandum of understanding from an “alliance” into an “understanding” over common political and national grounds, leaving a glaring gap between “the public” of Hizballah and that of the Free Patriotic Movement.
  • The “anthem against corruption” remained sensational and vague. He points out that while Aoun’s discourse on corruption might “tickle the feelings” of the middle class, it is out of tune with the popular classes that are dependent on the channels of corruption and clientalism. I think this observation can also be used to critique the approach of idealist, typically middle class alternatives for governance — such as secularization, centralization, etc — which ignore the realities on the ground, be those engendered by choice or lack of it.
  • The opposition’s inability to concretize its slogan of “building the strong, capable, and just state.” In fact, when it came to ministerial appointments, the selection of electoral candidates, and the paucity of their political programs, the opposition repeated the mistakes of the governmental majority.

It is one thing to try and understand vote composition along the lines of various groups, be they defined by gender, social class, age etc. And in Lebanon of course, sect becomes the overriding category. But to take this to the level of judging whether someone was voted in with the “right” votes or not is a dangerous game of numbers. That the balance was tipped by the Shiite vote in favor of the Free Patriotic Movement in Byblos (which, it turns out, is not even accurate given the margin of ca. 8,000 votes) and Baabda or by the Sunni vote in favor of March 14 in Zahleh, does that make it less legitimate? Even in a thoroughly sectarian system such as ours, a citizen of a non-majority sect in a certain district is still represented — on a practical level, at least — by the parliamentarians from that district. Instead, s/he is being treated like a resident alien with voting rights. I am surprised no one has suggested population transfers yet.

But it does not stop here. Hints of the “outside” vote of the Armenians were not absent from this electoral battle either. Harping on the Greek Orthodox tendon of Ashrafiyah was also an electoral strategy — and a successful one by the looks of it. Where does it stop? Is a Greek Orthodox vote cast in Matn the “right” one? Is a Maronite vote cast in Ashrafiyah the “right” one? If my mother is Greek Orthodox Lebanese and my father a Shiite Iraqi and I have been naturalized in 1995 as Shiite, but have been living in France since 1996 with my Maronite husband and came back to vote for Aoun in Byblos, would that make mine a “right” vote? I wonder.

"Shit on you and on these elections. Banana republic. A decent citizen." (Source: al-Akhbar)

An "invalid" ballot: "Shit on you and on these elections. 'Banana republic.' Signed: A decent citizen." (Source: http://www.al-akhbar.com/ar/node/140198)

Since I have nothing to do but write a dissertation, I spent last night trying to make some sense of the numerical aspects of the elections. This year, thanks to Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud, blank votes were counted separately and not together with invalid votes. This went down well with eleven thousand one hundred and ninety-seven voters, or 0.82% of cast ballots (Sean has a table with the breakdown of blank votes per district). It might not seem much, but one has to keep in mind the voting conditions at various polling stations and that this is the first time a distinction between “blank” and “invalid” votes is implemented. Given that in Lebanese elections no one is ever sure how many of the eligible voters are actually alive or around, abstaining from the vote in protest might be misinterpreted as, well, death. That is why I think the blank vote is important — it not only protests the lack of choices, but it also asserts a presence, both physical and political.

My other perfect excuse for procrastination was “the popular vote.” Hassan Nasrallah brought it up in his speech last night when commenting on the election results and Al of Ex Oriente Lux picks up on this issue. Nasrallah said the opposition probably has the popular vote and that he will leave it to the professionals to figure it out. According to a study cited by al-Akhbar (bottom of the page), the opposition received 54.5% of the popular vote, whereas the ruling coalition received 45.5%. I find it funny that the total adds up to 100%. As far as I know, we have not succumbed to the two-party system yet and there was a visible amount of votes cast for people not running on either lists, especially in Hizballah and Amal’s backyards.

Now I am no professional, but here are the numbers I got when, instead of taking the voters as blocks of with or against, I added the total number of votes cast for the total number of candidates in three categories: opposition 50.4%, ruling coalition 46%, and other 3.6%. I only did the numbers once and I might have missed an affiliated independent or two, but not any with a considerable number of votes attached.

These numbers are, of course, distorted on many levels, one of the main distortions being the opposition within Sunni and Shia turfs. This is particularly significant in majority Shia areas where the ruling coalition presence is weak, the “existential” confrontation is low priority, and the challenge comes from friendly quarters. Such was the case in Baalbak-Hermel and Hasbayya-Marji`yun where opposition competitors received some 10% of the vote.

As Ibrahim al-Amin points out in the al-Akhbar article linked to above, had there been a system of proportional representation, a bloc representing a substantial number of the Shia would most likely emerge. Which is why, all calls to the contrary notwithstanding, Hizballah has no interest in improving Shia representation — and I have posted on this before. That is why I find that Hassan Nasrallah’s passing comment on the popular vote has little to do with rights or justice. I see it instead as a performative utterance that indulges the feelings of underrepresentation that the Shia (rightfully) have and tickles the demographic fear the rest suffer from. All the while papering over the more complex realities that assure the indefinite continuation of the status quo.

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