Beirut, Lebanon – The last parliamentary elections in Lebanon were held nine years ago.
Since then, the country has seen its executive body sit vacant for two years, watched parliament extend its tenure twice, and witnessed a prime minister abruptly resign and just as suddenly retract his resignation.
A new electoral law, passed last summer, staved off a major political deadlock that threatened to leave the country without a parliament – and the bill set a vote deadline of May 2018.
But as the country prepares to put the new electoral law to the test, many Lebanese expressed scepticism and a lack of enthusiasm for the May 6 parliamentary elections.
Lebanon is heading “toward one of the dullest elections since the end of the war in 1990”, wrote political analyst Joseph Bahout in a recent article.
The upcoming elections promise “no significant surprises” and do not offer “major political stakes, or programmes, mobilising the attention of voters”, argued Bahout.
But observers face a “difficulty” making sense of the upcoming elections due to “the time lapse since the last elections,” Halim Shebaya, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“In nine years, so much has changed locally, regionally and internationally and it remains to be seen where the Lebanese public stand on many issues.”
Lebanon’s decade of turbulent politics took place amid the influx of over a million refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict next door, a waste-management crisis that brought citizens of Beirut onto the streets, and major military operations to clear fighters linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group from the country’s remote border areas.
“Due to the dire state of affairs in the country, there is undoubtedly a general sense of deep dissatisfaction with the performance of the parties currently in parliament,” said Shebaya.
“The million-dollar question is how will voters decide to channel this dissatisfaction.”
‘Three types of voters’
Bachar El-Halabi, a political analyst, conceptualised Lebanese voters into three broad categories.
First, he described the “traditional voter” who benefits directly from the “clientelist system” of traditional political parties.
The second type of voter wants to vote for “alternative options,” said El-Halabi, at least in theory, “largely emerging from the so-called civil society”.
Then there are Lebanese who have “given up” and are boycotting the elections, according to El-Halabi.
Many Lebanese citizens, speaking to Al Jazeera both on and off the record, expressed a sense of frustration with the country’s state of affairs. Most voiced scepticism that the upcoming elections will bring about real change in a country long governed by a power-sharing system of sectarian dynasties that accommodate clientelist politics.
Still, many said they would vote.
Marwan Tabbal, a surgeon, said he participated in the 2015 #YouStink demonstrations, the massive civil unrest movement protesting the country’s poor waste management system.
“I was disappointed. Now that I look [back] at it, I think of myself as an idiot,” said Tabbal. “Nothing will change.”
Yet, Tabbal said he would most probably be voting, “to preserve something.”
“I am supporting the president,” said Tabbal, referring to President Michel Aoun, the founder of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).
FPM, otherwise known as the Aounist party, is the largest Christian party in the country and currently holds 19 seats in the 128-member parliament.
“We struggled to bring this man to the presidency, and we need to support him,” he added, referring to the 29-month deadlock that left the country without a head of state from 2014 to 2016.
Culture of ‘zuama’
Nour Hachem, a social media professional, said she was “disappointed” by the spectrum of available candidates and parties, but said she felt “responsible” to fulfil her civic duty as a Lebanese citizen.
Hachem said she would cast her vote for a party with little representation in the south, not out of ideological conviction but from a desire to protest the traditional domination of her home region by two major parties.
“I don’t need [Nabih] Berri or [Walid] Jumblatt to get me out of prison if I am innocent or to get me a bed in a hospital,” Hachem said, citing the names of leaders of two major parties, the Amal movement and the Progressive Socialist Party, and referring to a long tradition of political patronage in the country.
“These are our rights, and we should be able to get them without the help of any political party.”
According to Hachem, “it’s not only about [voter] education and political awareness. It’s a culture”.
“This is our culture: to vote for the zuama,” she said, using a term specifically referring to the local sectarian leaders in the regions of Lebanon.
“Lebanon is divided this way. Our parents suffered from this; we are suffering from it now; and tomorrow, our children will suffer from it if we don’t do anything about it,” said Mohamed Abbas, an accountant, who will be voting for an independent political movement.
“They dump waste, and we can’t say anything about it … They get indebted with [billions of dollars] on the expense of the people, and we don’t know where they are spending it.
“The people are divided in a way that we can’t do anything. Every party has its beneficiaries, and these people cannot revolt against them.”
A complicated law
Speculation on voter turnout is even more difficult given the new, though complicated, electoral law, which is being tested for the first time.
Instead of a majoritarian voting system, which is what the so-called “1960 law” was based upon, the June 2017 law introduced proportional representation.
Politicians promised this would grant seats to traditionally marginalised minorities and would shake up the sectarian composition of parliamentary blocs, thus weakening the historical hegemony of major political parties.
Based on this law, seats will be allocated proportionally according to candidate lists that political parties and various alliances put forth across Lebanon’s 27 sub-districts.
But the law added a twist to traditional proportional systems used elsewhere: the preferential vote.
Voters are now expected to cast two votes: one for a candidate list, and another for their single favourite candidate.
Usually, a proportional voting system increases voter turnout, because it ensures better representation, mainly for marginalised communities, explained political analyst Sami Nader.
But mixing the proportional voting system with what is essentially a one-man-one-vote system “defeats the purpose, and kills the advantages of both voting systems,” he said.
Although voters are not required to cast a preferential vote, if they do so, their favourite candidate must be included in the list they have chosen.
“The real battle is [now] within the lists. The competition is over the preferential votes,” said Nader.
“And voters are feeling this. They would tell you they want X candidate, but they don’t want their whole list. This is not an incentive for voters [to vote].”
Maria Ashkar, a freelance artist, agreed. “I should be able to vote for one person and not 10. It’s like marrying someone; you don’t want to marry them and their entire family … I feel like it’s completely unfair,” she said.
“I feel I should be able to vote for whoever I want without having the entire list onboard.”
‘Different types of competitions’
As a result of this hybrid system, the candidate lists that have emerged do not follow the traditional fault lines that have divided political parties and sects since Lebanon’s civil war.
To add to the complexity, in some districts, traditionally opposing parties have formed “coalition” lists together.
Yet in other districts, the same parties run against each other, noted parliamentary expert Rabih Kays.
“Imagine Republicans and Democrats allying against the Green Party,” said Kays.
“Does that add up in your mind? In Lebanon it does. No one is against anyone, and no one is with anyone.
“It’s different types of competitions. It’s diagonal and horizontal at the same time.”
Although he backed the new law when it passed, Nader said now that he has seen its effects in the recent campaign cycle, he thinks the law impedes reform.
“I think people will be voting for an individual and not for a programme. This is no dynamic for change,” he said.
El-Halabi agreed, saying that participating in the upcoming elections would equal “validation of a political class that is aiming to recycle itself through the election and regain its legitimacy, after illegally extending the mandate of the 2009 parliament twice.”
“I don’t want to give them this legitimacy,” El-Halabi said, adding that he will not be voting.