Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Plus ça Change…

Lebanon has just completed its latest cycle of parliamentary elections, and that’s a good thing, right? For the observers of the country, from foreign diplomats to donor nations to multinational organizations, an election is always viewed positively because it shows the working of democracy in real time. People have expressed their opinions, one thinks, by voting for a candidate, a current, a party or even a religious community, who shall advance people’s aspirations and bring them to the fore. The fore being the parliament that would deliberate, discuss, debate and pass laws that meet people’s expectations.

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However, failed States stage elections simply to gain legitimacy. In the near afar of Lebanon, elections are State-sponsored events during which the deep State (as in Egypt), or the shadow State (as in Lebanon) advances its own list of candidates to ensure the status quo. The few, if any, opposition candidates are usually sidelined or become flukes. They often are tools of the propaganda machine which uses them to underline the ‘moderate’ or ‘benevolent’ nature of the regime which, in turn, controls each and every aspect of life.

The fact that opposition groups in Lebanon have won a near majority -and by opposition we mean parties that are not overtly aligned with Hezbollah or those who are opposed to it, but still in moderation- could be a distinctive event from the rest of the region. But the same has occurred in Iraq, and yet the Iraqi powers who are fully aligned with Iran have undermined the electoral results. Also, in Lebanon, the former so-called 14th of March Movement won a majority of parliament seats (2005,2009) but lost its grip on power. This Movement could not wrest Lebanon away from Hezbollah’s rule or loosen the grip of the political barons (many of whom were part of the said Movement) whose corruption and blundering of public funds were only made possible -and still are- by the protection of the Hezbollah militia.

Meaningful change in Lebanon, even after the recent elections, will be hard to come because, the political barons -all communities confounded- have no inclination, and no serious will to upset the status quo, as long as their graft, clientelism and dirty politics are allowed to fester. What they have vied for principally through the elections was a mere game of musical chairs. Geagea was bent on dislodging the Aoun-Bassil tandem from its pole position in the Christian sphere, Joumblatt on reasserting his hegemony over the Druzes, and w new/old Sunni faces were offering themselves as alternatives to the Hariri family. In the Shia community, both Amal and Hezbollah made sure, through undemocratic means, that even such ‘internal’ change was and remains impossible. So, Geagea, Joumblatt et al. will not advance any serious agenda to dislodge Hezbollah from its pedestal. They have no concrete plans or means for rebuilding State institutions, although their electoral slogans state the contrary. They simply want to secure their own places at the power-distribution-table under the watchful eye of Hezbollah.

What about the few independent and seemingly progressive candidates? A glimmer of hope might be found in their victories which could garner support outside parliament in a move to oppose further erosions of State power. Support should be given to them, at the exception of all others, since they are neither part of the old nor the newly rejuvenated cabal of politicians. Even though hope and support on their own, will be insufficient to remove militia rule and stem the tides of total collapse.

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As in all elections, the focus goes primarily on the candidates and newly elected MPs. But how about the electors? The real force behind all elections and the basis of any democracy? This is where, on closer look, one starts to realize the magnitude of the catastrophe. A nation whose savings have been wiped out, whose lives have been obliterated, whose children emigrate by droves and some by sinking boats, has -to a large extend- renewed the lease of its political bondage to the ‘Plantation Owners’ who trade and toil them at will, from generation to the next. Many voters were driven by blind loyalty (a polite word for efficient clientelism). More were driven by economic conditions (another polite word for vote buying). The fewer rest, stayed at home or voted for the independent candidates.

Till voters unshackle themselves from the nexus of clientelism and of economic slavery, no elections in Lebanon will produce the change that one hopes for. The ill is not solely in the ruthless ruling elite, it is in the complacent, herd-like, electoral base that sustains it. 

Louis Brandeis Justice of the US Supreme Court (1916-1939) once said “The most important office, and the one which all of us can and should fill, is that of private citizen.”

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