Lebanon's opposition faces internal and external obstacles to electoral success

Ambitious young candidates must face entrenched sectarian sentiment and fragmented alliances

New candidates enter turbulent world of Lebanese politics

New candidates enter turbulent world of Lebanese politics
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The scene is common in the weeks before elections in Lebanon. Campaigners with a megaphone and fliers are spreading the word about their candidates' electoral programme on a busy Beirut street. A man on a scooter pulls up to discuss politics.

But a few minutes later, a group of men drive the young activists away as they start to set up a tent.

“They are trying to come and take our streets,” one says angrily.

Soldiers standing near by watch but do not interfere.

This is Tarik Jdideh, an impoverished Beirut suburb known for its allegiance to Lebanon’s de facto Sunni leader, Saad Hariri. His withdrawal from politics in January has left his supporters anxious before the parliamentary election scheduled for May 15.

“For these next four years, let us walk with dignity and remain loyal to Saad Hariri,” says another of the men, declining to give his name.

The activists who were chased away are members of left-wing secular groups running a grassroots campaign called Beirut Tuqawem, or “Beirut resists” in English.

They are unsurprised by the display of aggression. They have faced hostility before in other areas of the capital, including those that support other sectarian leaders.

"Sectarian chiefs have clientelist networks distributed around the entire city. These men represent how they operate these clientelistic networks," says Hussein Kotob, 33, an electrical engineer.

“Next time we’ll try a different strategy. Instead of a tent, we’ll just distribute fliers in alleyways. I really believe that if we walk in the streets and talk in shops, most people will want to hear what we have to say.”

Lebanon’s economic crisis has presented political reformists with a historic opportunity to make gains against entrenched sectarian politicians, including former warlords from the 1975-1990 civil war, who the public largely blames for the collapse.

Emboldened by an unprecedented months-long popular uprising that started on October 17, 2019, opposition groups are fielding a large number of candidates for this election.

Despite obstacles, they hope to significantly improve on the one seat they won in 2018.

Public sentiment is, in theory, largely behind them. A study commissioned by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation found in February that out of the 50 per cent of Lebanese who considered voting, a quarter of them would vote for an independent.

Lebanon’s powerful Shiite party and militia, Hezbollah, ranked next among the potential voters, followed by groups born from the October 17 protests.

“It’s the first time that I’m open-minded to discuss a new project,” says Jihad Al Faraan, 33, a post office employee who stopped his scooter to exchange views with Mr Kotob before the campaigners were driven out of Tarik Jdideh.

“Politicians in this country have made a huge scam."

Mr Al Faraan was referring to the economic crisis, widely regarded as the result of corruption and mismanagement by its elite.

Verena El Amil, 25, a candidate in the Metn district near Beirut, says she can feel the enthusiasm for her candidacy.

“It’s important for the youth to run because they haven’t been co-opted by the system yet,” she says as she campaigns in a middle-class neighbourhood called Badaro. Here, the crowd is mostly young and educated.

“If I voted in Metn, I would have voted for her,” says Lama, a passer-by in her twenties from south Lebanon, after talking to Ms El Amil.

“Last time I left my ballot blank. No one represented me.”

I have a vision and I want to fight heart and soul for a better country
Verena El Amil, 25-year-old independent candidate

Ms El Amil spent all of her savings, about $1,000, to register for the election and has no outside source of funding. She says older politicians have tried to discourage her.

“They asked me to join their lists, or tell me, 'What are you doing here? You’re 25 years old. We’ve been here for 30 years.' But I have a vision and I want to fight heart and soul for a better country.”

Adham Al Hassanieh, 34, a member of the four-year old left-wing party Li Haqqi, is keeping his expectations “manageable and moderate”.

“The system is not collapsing but it’s shaking,” Mr Al Hassanieh says.

He believes it will be a challenge to have Lebanese become more involved in politics after decades of non-democratic practices by the dominant parties, including buying votes and intimidation.

“I think that if there is no change, it means we have failed, not that there is no hope.”

In addition to entrenched sectarian sentiment and a deep mistrust of politics, Lebanon's political opposition must also reckon with internal divisions.

There are several competing opposition lists in Beirut, significantly weakening the chances of success for all of them.

“We would have loved to have one list for all opposition parties in all districts,” says Tarek Ammar, 53, a consultant who is running in a parliamentary election in Beirut for the first time.

He is one of five members of the citizen council, or political bureau, of Madinati, a party that started as an electoral list for the municipality of Beirut in 2016.

“People want change but most of us who took to the streets in October 2019 had never worked together before," Mr Ammar says.

"The expectations are high but overthrowing the regime is a long battle. The election is just part of it."

Economist Kamal Hamdan says the fragmentation of Lebanon’s opposition is largely due to the nature of the country’s sectarian power-sharing system.

And there are no strong trade unions that could help to unify opposition groups, which is the result of political parties’ successful attempts at weakening labour groups in the 1990s.

“There are also personal ego battles and that’s normal,” Mr Hamdan says.

Internal disagreements have led some parties to boycott the elections altogether.

Since the aborted flier distribution in Tarek Jdideh last month, Li Haqqi, a key member of Beirut Tuqawem, dropped out and withdrew its five candidates running in different parts of the country.

In a statement published on April 4, the deadline for electoral lists to register with the Interior Ministry, the party accused other, unidentified opposition groups of using the same tactics as “the regime”.

Sources said there were disagreements over personalities chosen to share lists with.

Mr Al Hassanieh, who was Li Haqqi’s Beirut candidate, declined to speak to the media about the split.

Updated: April 11, 2022, 4:11 AM