Derision of democracy

By Sami Halabi

Provisions for disabled persons were one of the reforms scuppered by Lebanon's politicians (Photo: AP)

When things go wrong, progressive types normally try to fix them. But in Lebanon, this simple logic is rarely followed; more often than not we go along with the situation so as not to stir up tension, in the hopes that somewhere down the line things will fix themselves. But our problems don’t get fixed — they fester.

The Lebanese still adhere to an archaic and dysfunctional municipal system based on the dictates of an Ottoman sultan, with a dash of French colonialism thrown in for good measure. Looking at our current administrative process — in which it takes 67 signatures to fix a truck belonging to a municipality, according to economist Marwan Iskandar — it’s obvious that applying an old system to a new world just doesn’t work.

Change is painfully slow in this country, where political power is tied to sectarian affiliations and local loyalties, and people’s sense of disenfranchisement is so ingrained that it becomes self-fulfilling. Lebanon’s political leaders have a vested interest in maintaining the entrenched patronage systems in their sectarian fiefdoms, which ensure that no major decisions are taken without their consent.

Citizens suffer as a result; around $480 million stuck in the Beirut municipality’s coffers that could be used to develop the city has been tied up for months because the mayor, Abdelmounim Ariss, and the governor, Nassif Kaloosh, are from opposing parties and can’t agree to sign the same piece of paper.

The election process itself is no more democratic than the system of governance. A significant portion of last month’s municipal elections were over before they started, with 15 percent of the seats won uncontested — amounting to 56 council seats and 199 mayoralties. The polls were supposed to be a platform to continue the government’s piecemeal electoral reforms that were introduced in last year’s parliamentary elections. Proposals ranged from the introduction of pre-printed standardized ballots and campaign finance reforms that prevent vote buying, to proportional representation and quotas for women to make for a more balanced outcome.

The much needed reforms would have provided a more democratic and equitable outcome for Lebanon’s voters. However, seeing the status quo that so benefits them threatened, our politicians engaged in the time honored tradition of stalling the matter by reviving age-old excuses that reforms such as lowering the voting age (opposed by all the Maronite-led parties) and allowing non-residents to vote (opposed by non-Christian-led parties) would upset the sectarian “balance” of the country, even though there is scant evidence as to the sectarian impact of either. The constitutional deadline for the elections was duly ignored until it was too late and the reforms had to be abandoned.

With electoral reform dead in the water, lawmakers then went on to neuter the democratic process further with “consensual lists” that allowed the interior minister to announce the “results” of some contests before the actual ballots were cast. And where the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah didn’t get their way with the lists, instead of running a campaign based on policy to defeat their opponents, they packed up and pulled out. The Future Movement and the Nasserites didn’t do much better; after they couldn’t come to agreement over how to divvy up the spoils, their supporters decided to have a punch-up in the polling stations.

But all the blame cannot be laid squarely at the feet of our politicians. After all, if they can get away with making a mockery of the democratic process and still get people to come out and vote for them, then why wouldn’t they take advantage of the situation?

With every year that passes of politics-as-usual, we complain that things aren’t getting any better. But if we genuinely want to see reform, there is no other option than to do what the politicians always tell us will tear the country apart: end confessionalism and change our political and administrative system.

We need to change our mindset and realize that what we let fester will never fix itself — or we should simply shut up and stop complaining.

First published in Executive Magazine’s June Issue.


Author: Sami Halabi

Sami Halabi is a policy consultant who covers a range of policy issues and analyses development programmes, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Sami specialises in analysing policies and programmes in order to provide evidence-based recommendations to policy-makers and international development agencies. Sami holds a Master of Public Policy with Distinction from The University of Edinburgh.

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