Beirut, Lebanon: On this lovely morning here on the coast of the Mediterranean there is not a cloud in the sky. In less than twenty-four hours voting will begin. However, on this day before the election, a howling wind is blowing from the south making the thousands of posters, banners and building-sized placards that feature the faces of the scores of potential Lebanese parliamentarians dance and sway wildly above the throngs of tomorrows voters.
But this wind, one that just yesterday seemed to bring the promise of a new future for Lebanon, will it be an ill wind that instead dashes this attempt at populist democratic reform, one cast from nine years of progress, onto the rocks of US-backed history?
Judging from the past twelve hours on the streets of Beirut, there is suddenly strong pause for concern. Someone is buying votes!
And just about everyone knows it.
Prior to arriving in the wee hours of this morning, this reporter had checked the newspaper offerings in the three airports transited for features on this very important election. In the New York Times, London Times, UK Independent, Financial Times, their Friday-before-the-election editions included not so much as a mention. In the English language papers of Turkey to the north, neither the Daily News or the Daily Sabah had a similar omission.
These same papers had news about Armenian, Moldovan and/ or the Maldivian elections where the western powers were already far along in bringing their unelected candidates back to power despite contrary election results past. The many Lebanese spoken with this day did not know of this glaring omission but were not surprised. As one local commented, “Well, they always ignore us…until war breaks out, again.”
The Rules of Engagement.
It’s now 7 PM on this Saturday and the bars are closing; unheard of in this town known for its vibrant nightlife that routinely parties to 4 AM even on a Sunday. It has been nine years since this nation’s last election and the Lebanese government wants everyone sober enough tomorrow to make it to the voting booth. So, if you want a drink only a restaurant can legally serve alcohol; hopefully on a full stomach.
Voting for any of the almost seven hundred different candidates from across the country begins at 7 AM tomorrow. An interesting requirement for voting is that all Lebanese must return to their place of birth to do so, and because of the closed bars, tonight is extraordinarily quiet. As one taxi driver accurately stated, Sunday “will see the return of old Beirut.”
In what appears to be a form of Gerrymandering, when the voters return home to vote, many travelling over a hundred miles to do so, they must vote from a set list of candidates specific to their region. This would appear to be a violation of the Lebanese constitution that allows for universal suffrage and will restrict these voters from voting for more favorable candidates within the party of their choice, but not on their ballot. Despite the excitement of tomorrows historic election, many are quite unhappy about this limited choice that certainly affects their decision at the ballot box.
These separate ballots will be divided across the nation- similar to US congresspersons- by population. This means that Beirut, the largest city, has three different districts and three different ballots. The smaller cites have only one and in the rural areas of many small towns and villages, their ballots are apportioned to a set region.
One hundred and twenty-eight candidates will be elected tomorrow- the entire parliament. This has never before happened and is just as unusual in other worldwide elections where the election cycle is split instead- as in the US- to every two, four or six years. This makes this election all the more important since, post-election, it is these same parliamentarians that will subsequently elect the new Prime Minister, the very powerful three-member Cabinet and the President. Hence the stakes for this election have never been higher and this election will see a wholesale and long-lasting change in influence.
In an attempt to level the playing field for all candidates, all of them are currently under a national gag order that began this morning and will be enforced until the election is over and the results are in. None may, in this period, speak with any Radio, TV, Internet, or newspaper news source. Additionally, any manipulation by virtue of misleading advanced polling data has been restricted making the outcome an unknown to the voter and a further encouragement to get out and vote.
Everyone interviewed, without exception, views the many Hizbullah candidates as the status quo that will prevail. The only question is the final tally of seats. Hizbullah’s growing power has been achieved in the past by it creating various coalition alliances such as the March 7 or March 14 coalitions of many years ago. So the question is not whether Hizbullah will retain power, but whether it may achieve an actual majority.
While there are many other candidates in opposition to Hizbullah, they are aligned with either the Christian, Alawite, Sunni, Druze religious factions. These have previously failed to garner significant support since they have done very little, compared to Hizbullah, to bring real societal change to Lebanon. They also have repeatedly done nothing to defend their country in the three previous wars of incursion by Israel, while the people of Lebanon and Hizbullah have fought side-by-side. This memory applied at the ballot box to the horrors of war past and will have many voters discounting religious affiliations in favor of the national defence. These concerns have given current Minister of the Interior (which manages the police and domestic security), Mouhad Al Mashouk, perceived front-runner status for many who are looking beyond the Hizbullah offerings.
Mashouk may have trouble with this since the Shia candidate, retired Colonel Ali Al Shaer is featuring his own defensive track record as a reason for votes.
The image of Saad Hariri, son of venerated Rafik Hariri, is so prevalent by itself, and alongside those of the many candidates, that one would think he was running for election. His image and presence of support for these candidates are designed to hopefully bring him to power again via parliamentary vote. There is no doubt that he is riding the coattails of his father in a similar fashion to Justin Trudeau despite his brief resignation and defection to Saudi Arabia. This is not lost on the voters, but strangely many believe he has a chance since most have forgiven him for his treason.
Western Desperation: Who is Buying All Those Opposition Votes?
What does not bode well for a peaceful and long-lasting result of this election is that some of the opposition candidates are paying for votes. This reporter spoke with five different voters who all told the same story: The going price in South of Lebanon is $800 and the mortita for Beirut is as high as $2000…plus airfare!!
One woman voter spoke of her anguished conversation with her parents who wanted her to change her vote and had admitted to her that they had been given $1000 each for their votes. Another bar patron informed this reporter that, due to the requirement of voting in the district of one’s birth, opposition candidates were going to be bused in from across Lebanon since Beirut is the plum of this election, having far the most seats to win. One bartender spoke with disgust about an opposition staff member visiting his bar- not an hour before- and offering he and other patrons $1000 per vote.
Worse, yet another taxi driver spoke of his parents being contacted in Canada with an offer of airfare and $2000 per vote to come to Lebanon on Sunday.
While this might seem outrageous and expensive, it shows the panic that the opposition is in regarding the likely outcome in favor of Hizbullah. These allegations were made all the more
legitimate based on this reporters observations and conversations with arriving passengers from Brazil, which, interestingly, has a larger Lebanese population that Lebanon itself.
On the inbound flight arriving to Beirut, a large contingent of twenty or more Brazilians was on the same flight. However, during a casual conversation, they revealed few things about their trip other than two key facts: They were staying only until just Monday morning… and had brought with them almost no luggage. This made little sense at the time; until the testimony of many in Beirut certified their true reason for an 11,000-mile ,two-day vacation.
Of further concern was how these paid for voters would be monitored in performing their deeds in the confines of a secret voting booth. With the Lebanese being known for corruption, all spoken with assumed there would be secret monitoring to be sure the opposition got what it paid for.
These facts put together and many Lebanese are concerned about some sort of Maidan Square event taking place tomorrow. So is the army.
Beirut has a strong military presence at all times, but in recent days, here in Beirut, that presence has more than doubled. This morning, this reporter witnessed a convoy of troop transport vehicles head into the city carrying over 150 uniformed soldiers. Every soldier is armed and everyone you encounter is cautious, unsmiling… and locked and loaded.
Despite these tangible concerns, the Lebanese spoken with were taking it all in stride. As one woman put it, draining here cocktail glass and cheerfully chiming in, “ They bomb…we rebuild. They bomb…we rebuild. That’s Lebanon.”
Smacking her glass down loudly on the bar for emphasis, now staring me in the eyes directly, she concluded in an accurate note of optimism, “But they have never defeated us…and they never fucking will!”
In what can only be considered a staggering loss for western influence in Lebanon, Hizbullah doubled its seats in the new Lebanese parliament as a result of the first election in nine years…and its own, far too obvious, attempt to influence the result.
The desperation of Saad Hariri’s western backers had been shown by his image shadowing the many candidate’s campaign poster images whom he hoped would be part of his own new coalition, one that would have resulted in additional influence for him and the western backers he met with two weeks ago in Paris. This was exemplified by the vote-buying scandal- ignored by western media- designed to negate Hizbullah’s continued rise in influence.
In a political blunder of geopolitical importance, during the days leading up to this past Sunday’s Parliamentary election this supposedly secret vote buying (for as much as $2000 per vote) was anything but a secret in the minds of Lebanese voters as they went to the polls. The disgust of voters for this attempt to thwart their first move towards democracy after almost a decade served up a defeat that could see Hariri relegated to the dustbin of politics since many of the candidates he counted on were thrashed, losing more than a third of their existing seats, while Hizbullah doubled their seats to twenty-four and many of their coalition partners also made strong gains. This means that, as predicted, the Hizbullah coalition will not only be a block to remaining western influence in the Parliament, this coalition will also now set the agenda and with their new majority have the ability to strongly influence the election of the three most important leaders: the President, Speaker of Parliament and Prime Minister- who will not likely be Hariri.
Trouble for Hariri began early on election morning when, by 2 PM, voter turnout was well below expectations at a paltry 24.7%. This led to impassioned television pleas from current president Michel Aoun asking Lebanon to get out and vote. In a subsequent tweet he wrote, “I reiterate the call, if change and a new approach are what you want, you must exercise your right. You should not miss the opportunity given by the new law which grants everyone permission to access parliament.”
Processions of cars adorned with political party banners and flags began roaming the streets with bullhorns begging voters to come out, and their candidates began soliciting votes in front of the polling stations despite both being a violation of campaign rule78. Kataeb Party leader and MP Sami Gemayel after casting his vote in Metn, told reporters afterwards that he was shocked at “candidates breaking the media blackout rule.” President of the Election Observation Committee, Judge Nadim Abdel Malek, next released a statement warning any media outlet that had breached the electoral silence in today’s vote that they will be referred to the Publications Court.
As has been the case in the lead up to the election, Hizbullah was playing it cool and by the rules. Their supporters are impassioned, well organized, pro- Lebanon down to their core and vote. Thus, the ongoing reports of low turn-out favoured their likely success. Hizbullah did not participate in election trickery, which is consistent with its eighteen-year rise in power that, among other factors has been bolstered by a consistent adherence to ethics as demanded by their Shia doctrine and its abhorrence of corruption. This doctrine has been the proper reflection of the demonstrative corruption and divisiveness of Hariri and the other non-Shia parties. After the widespread vote-buying scandal, voters were left with only two choices, don’t vote or vote against continued corruption. Neither choice favoured Hariri, hence the low turn-out and that his party, the Future Movement Party, went down in defeat.
Election Day Begins- Democracy Wins!
There were no serious incidents reported and problems were limited to long lines, accidentally switched ballot boxes, a lack of privacy in voting booths, lack of handicap access and help for the elderly, complaints that ballot cards were too large and that several politicians were violating Rule 78. Popular Bloc leader Myriam Skaff held a news conference saying that Lebanese Forces Party supporters struck her car with bats and criticized the Internal Security Forces for not intervening when her car was attacked while she was in it, before the Lebanese army finally intervened. Al-Jadeed TV reported that the Lebanese Army pulled a man from his car after he tried to drive through a roadblock in Choueifat.
Chief Observer of the European Union’s Election Observation Mission Elena Valenciano said that the mission and its 131 observers across Lebanon had a “very positive” impression of the voting process in 98 percent of cases observed.“The management of the voting process is happening normally and professionally,” Valenciano said. Her comment, of course, failed to mention the voter fraud so much in everyone else’s minds. Free Patriotic Movement leader, parliamentary candidate and current foreign minister Gebran Bassil more accurately addressed this problem, stating, that there was a “financial brutality” that was “focused on buying votes and the consciences of citizens, which is dangerous.” Bassil said his party was “clean.”
The Electoral Supervisory Committee released a statement denouncing violations of a government-ordered media blackout on electoral campaigns. “Despite releasing continued statements and warnings during its direct observation of the media, it appears that some outlets are still violating the electoral media blackout and are not adhering to Article 78 of the electoral law,” the statement reads. Article 78 prevents news outlets from reporting on campaigns during Election Day.
Despite low turn out, some district voting district locations were packed until closing time. Baalbeck-Hermel was given an additional 73 ballot boxes for multiple municipalities after the original allotted boxes filled up by 3:30 p.m. This led to Hezbollah Deputy head Sheikh Naim Qassem contacting the Interior Ministry overextending voting hours beyond original 7 p.m. closing time. This was denied for correct constitutional reasons, however, the compromise was to allow anyone still in line to enter the polling area before 7 PM and then vote after the doors were closed. This lead to the official close of the vote being at 8:08 PM.
At 10.32pm the Lebanese Interior Ministry revised its final turnout count in the election to 46.88. This was a disappointing turnout after nine years of anticipation and down from the previous election’s total of 55%.
What the Election Means for Lebanon.
On Monday, the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah spoke of a big political and electoral victory for the “Resistance,” saying that Hezbollah proved wrong any doubts about the support that it enjoys within its base.
The group’s Shia bloc of total Shia candidates emerged stronger than before. Shia dissent against Hezbollah and its allies in the Amal Movement in the south was so minimal that opposing candidates lists failed to reach the election threshold.
Besides increasing Shia representation in full, Hezbollah was able to expand its base in parliament, picking up seats for Sunni and Christian allies in Beirut and the WesternBeqaaValley.
“Hezbollah is the biggest winner in this election,” Kassem Kassir, author of the book Hezbollah between 1982 and 2016, told Middle East Eye. He added that the party and its direct allies will end up with a 50 MP bloc of the 128, not including the past loyal coalition of President Michel Aoun’s lawmakers.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement lost seats in several districts where it was previously unchallenged. His party shed a third of its previous share of parliament – down to 29 MPs.
In Tripoli, the Future Movement lost five of the district’s 11 seats to Sunni rivals and ex-prime minister Najib Mikati picked up four while Faisal Karameh, a former minister and the heir of a political dynasty in the north, was able to make it into parliament. Meanwhile, former justice minister Ashraf Rifi was soundly defeated in his hometown of Tripoli, ending his quest to challenge Hariri for Sunni leadership.
The right-wing Christian group, the Lebanese Forces (LF), is expected to expand its presence in the parliament from eight to 15 MPs, making it a major force in Christian politics. LF staunchly opposes Hezbollah and calls its weapons illegitimate, which is the height of political hypocrisy since this group operated as a brutal militia in the 1975-1990 civil war and was banned during the Syrian control of Lebanon until 2005.
With Aoun in the presidential palace, his Free Patriotic Party (FPM) looked to at least maintain its large bloc in parliament in support of the presidency. However, the FPM is set to lose a few of its 27 seats. Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister, Aoun’s son-in-law and FPM president, made it into parliament after two unsuccessful attempts in 2005 and 2009. Still, the FPM dropped seats in Mount Lebanon and the North, mostly because of proportional representation, and now it has to deal with stronger opposition from Geagea, who was vying for the presidency himself.
Independent candidates across Lebanon tried to challenge established political parties on Sunday, but they were almost completely unsuccessful which was a huge disappointment for the growing youth movement across Lebanon that detests sectarianism, patronage and corruption and largely due to the vote-buying scandal stayed home instead of vote. Nadia Shaarawi, the manager of the polling station, said that young people had largely stayed away.“The young people don’t want to vote,” she said. “I know from my nieces and nephews, they are not happy with any politicians.”
Their message was only heard in the mostly Christian Beirut 1 district, where journalist Paula Yacoubian, one of the seventy independent candidates with the Kolomna Watani Party, made it to parliament as the only successful woman candidate of the eighty-six offerings.
After the election had closed and the final tally was in, on Monday the interior minister Machnouk has hailed the election a “democratic festival”. At a press conference, Machnouk said all problems were swiftly addressed when brought to the attention of the ministry, which was substantially accurate.
Hizbullah leader, Hassan Nasrallah also dubbed the election an “accomplishment,” praising the government and President Aoun for its success.
The future of Lebanon is now firmly in the hands of those new parliamentarians who are sincere in their desire to see Lebanon prosper and bring their a new kind of future. One based on inclusion and peace. As they head off to change Lebanon, this election will keep in their minds, and in the minds of the western troika one lesson, a lesson that is sure to rise again in the next election and hopefully in new elections across the world…cheaters never prosper!