Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Municipal elections: what’s awaiting us?

Posted by worriedlebanese on 04/12/2009

The coming municipal elections haven’t been scheduled yet, but they are supposed to take place sometime between the spring and summer of 2010. The Akhbar newspaper (arguably the most interesting read in the Lebanese press) has an interesting take on it: The Governors of community say no to municipal elections (in Arabic). Now that’s what I call a title. I could write a pages one of the specific expression it created – Governors of Community (حكام الطوائف) – which sums up perfectly the political dynamics in Lebanon. But instead of that I’ll stick to something rather simple: summing up the content of the article, analytically.

In a nutshell, the article deals with three issues: time, will and interests.

Time: now that’s a complicated issue. The law provides there should be new elections this year. Only no specific date has been chosen. We know that it should take place sometime between the coming spring and summer. But there’s one slight problem. The law isn’t very good and it should definitely be improved. But is it the time for such a change? Isn’t it too late? The Minister of the Interior Ziyad Baroud thinks not. He argues that politicians would only look into this law ahead of the elections to try to see if they can tilt it their way. So he believes that this is the best time for reform. He also is convinced that he is the best suited person to go ahead with this reform; he has worked extensively on that issue after all (here‘s a report he did in French). Lastly, as the article clearly states, Ziad Baroud doesn’t believe postponing the municipal elections even for a couple of months is a good idea. He seems to be afraid politicians who have a vested interest in the status quo would try to renew the mandate of the municipal councils for another term.

Will: The article shows that there are conflicting interests at play, and that grossly, there are three categories of actors:

  • The Minister of Interior who wants to go ahead with the elections so as to push for a reform of the electoral law.
  • The Quadripartite oligarchy (Mustaqbal, Amal, Ishtiraki-PSP, Hezbollah) that would rather not have elections because it could upset the relationships between its pillars (Hezbollah vs Amal in the South, Musataqbal vs Ishtiraki in the Chouf, Mustaqbal vs. “Independents” sunni notables in the cities). It could also upset the relations between one pillar and a junior partner that isn’t part of the oligarchy yet (Ishtiraki-PSP vs Lebanese Forces & Kataeb; Amal vs Free Patriotic Movement).
  • The junior partners (the Gemayels’ Kataeb, Frangieh’s Marada, Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, Arslan’s Democratic Party, Aoun’s Tayyar-Free Patriotic Movement…) who want to partake in these elections because they have all to win and nothing to loose to either confirm their political weight or conquer new territory.

Interests: Now that’s where it gets tricky. The article is quite good at showing how difficult it is for the political parties to deal with “local issues”, mostly family issues, competition between local figures on an ego trip. Ghassan Saoud, the journalist who wrote the article is very good at analysing these issues: he does his homework, sees who is doing what and how people are interacting. He did a good job a couple of days ago when he analysed the problems the Free Patriotic Movement is having in student councils, trade unions and professional organisations (you can read about it here, in Arabic). But he always misses (or underplays) the structural dimension when he does that. In this case, he doesn’t explain why these “personal” considerations are so important in local elections. He doesn’t say why there aren’t any other issues that come into play. The reason is pretty simple. In a majority of localities, most of the people registered on the electoral rolls do not reside there (it can go up to 90%). And in many localities, especially cities and suburban areas, most residents are not registered on the electoral rolls of the municipality! So the local issues are not relevant. These elections are not about local services, they’re about personal services that the municipal council can provide to people who are scattered everywhere. This is why local figures have to have links with national figures who can provide these services for them. Local elections are meant to give a territoria dimension to these national figures, but also to integrate new members to their patronage network. This central element unfortunately is hardly ever mentioned. And when it is, no one takes the time to look into the structural reason behind it. It’s not about culture, it’s about a simple legal provision.  If only residents were allowed to vote in municipal elections, the picture would be very different and local issues will take precedents.

Some links of interest:


5 Responses to “Municipal elections: what’s awaiting us?”

  1. WL says:
    “In a majority of localities, most of the people registered on the electoral rolls do not reside there (it can go up to 90%). And in many localities, especially cities and suburban areas, most residents are not registered on the electoral rolls of the municipality! So the local issues are not relevant. These elections are not about local services, they’re about personal services that the municipal council can provide to people who are scattered everywhere.”

    I have not seen any data about the municipal registration roles and so I cannot make anything approaching a definitive statement about the issue. All I can say is that I am very familiar with many of the towns in the Metn and I can confidently say that the question of non resident voters is not an issue. If there is an issue then it is in the reverse. So many of what used to be small villages have grown into towns and most of the new residents cannot vote. My personal judgement , baesd on the Metn area, is that local issues do play a huge role especially the idea of allegiance to an established family whose scion is a combination of a protector of the interests of the clan and a provider of aid in dire circumstances. This role is not much different than the role of Jumblatt, Frangieh, Salam, Karami et al except that in this case the physical area of influence is smaller. This sad state of affairs has led these traditional families to keep control of “local government”by dispensing favours and acting as if they “own” the fiefdom. Things will not change until the demographic composition of the electorate changes. The greater is the number of the youth and the more is the electorate then the less tight is the grip of these local feudal political scions on the municipal electoral system.
    Let me immediately hasten to add that I will not be surprised to learn that this dynamic does not apply all over the country. As in evreything else social and political phenomenon are probably not explained by only one set of variables.

  2. Hello GK thanks for your input.
    What I’m trying to do is go beyond the “traditional” analytical categories we usually deal with because I believe they are either irrelevant or they hide part of the reality because they are linked to political interests. I know we’ve disagreed on that issue many times, and we will probably keep on disagreeing on it. I’m probably clumsy with my approach, but I believe that it can be fruitful.
    Let’s take the “local issues” for instance. You include in them “family ties”, patronage and social hierarchies. I personally don’t believe those issues have anything “local”, especially in a region like the Metn, a region that has underwent massive demographical changes in the past thirty years.

    For me, local issues are those that matter to the resident population. These issues could be education, transport, infrastructure, security, social services, local economy… what makes an issue local is that it is deemed important for the resident population, that it’s small scale, that it includes an element of proximity and that it can be dealt with by the local authority that is being elected.
    Now once this definition is given we can see the considerable limitations it suffers from:
    – the local authorities have very little responsibilities and few ressources they can count on. This has to do with our administrative system that is extremely centralised. So the only effective function they can actually play is that of a “relay” with regards to the State institutions that provide almost exclusively most services (security, welfare, education, culture…).
    – the local authorities are not accountable to the resident population. And this is due to the electoral law and the demographical changes the country has witnessed (urbanisation, gentrification, pauperization and ethnic cleansing). To make things clearer to people who are not familiar with our electoral law, here are its basic elements. In Lebanon, voters do not register in the area they reside in, they are automatically registered in the region that their “personal registry” identifies them with. This region is usually the one their paternal great-grandfather was registered in when the French reorganised the civil registries according to the category “village of origin”.

    I’ve worked some years back with a group of students on several municipalities preceding the municipal elections. In every single case we discovered that most residents were not voters. This have very striking consequences. Let’s take a simple example, that of political communication. Hoardings have little use to politicians in their communication strategies. They are only important to show that the politician has means of his own and that he can translate them on a specific territory. So basically, the most important “local” dimension has to do with the territorialization of personal power. If this politician wants to reach out to his potential voters, he needs relays, people who can transmit the information to the voters that are scattered around the country. This is where family comes into play. Now these people do not care about the services he is likely to provide to residents (local services); not only these services hardly exists (for reasons we have already seen), but they won’t benefit from them! It would be irrational for them to take “local issues” in consideration. On the other hand, it’s perfectly rational for them to be interested in personal services that a politician can provide them with, wherever they reside (even abroad). The more each individual mobilises his family, the more likely he/she will get a service because he/she will be providing the politician with more voters! There’s nothing “cultural” or “traditional” about that. It’s a simple game of overriding structures and the maximalisation of individual interests.

  3. WL,
    Had it not been for the variety of opinions then things will be very monotonous:-) Hell if we all agree on everything then that could be “the end of history”.
    My only disagreement on this issue is regarding the voters in the municipalities. We do not disagree on the fact that the current system disenfranchises in a sense many of the residents of these villages?towns but my contention is that not many of the elections are determined by the votes of non residents and furthermore I am suggesting that the traditional allegiances to the local scion still play a large role. Let me give you a simple actual example. Brummana is probably a town of 20-30 thousand people during the summaer months but a large number of the “residents” do not live year round in the town. I am not sure that many consider themselves Brummanese. As a result it is the “natives” that determine the results of the elections and many, obviously most, of them vote along semi-feudal family relationships. My mother, for example, knows years in advance who she is voting for in municipal elections. She knows that her parents voted for an Ashkar, she has been voting for an Ashkar and she will vote in the furture for an Ashkar . The decision has nothing to do with qualifications. It is totally based on tradition and some form of a distant kinship. The only semi credible opposition to an Askar is often a Risk?Aswad who also have their traditional following based on old established family relations established a long long time ago. No one else stands a chance of running a credible campaign.
    What is ironic is that often the patronage of these scion families turns out to be counter productive. A citizen wants to expand a house without the proper documents and so the scion will ask the municipality to turn a blind eye. Many years later on the house that was built in violation goes to probate and the government collects a huge fee for the violations. Yet these scions are still in control and are likely to remain so for another generation or so.

    • The case of your mother (which isn’t at all isolated) is an interesting one to explore.
      Under the present regulation, she votes where her husband is registered, regardless of where she lives and even of where her husband lives. And she cannot even object to her transfer! Now this in itself is a anomaly.
      Now unless if she is from the same county as your father, she has no “kinship” ties with the place in which she votes. Even if she did come from the same locality, let’s take a look at what her motivations could be when votes.
      Does she live in Broumana or not?
      – If she doesn’t live in Broumana, the municipal elections are irrelevant to her. The only reason she would vote there is to please a certain person. Now why she wants to please him (I say him because in most cases candidates are middle-aged men). There are no local issues (I defined what i meant by local in my previous comment) at stake, only personal issues (person to person).
      – If she does live in Broumana, what does the municipality have to offer her? The local services it provides are negligible (and I showed in my previous comment why this is the case). So again, the most important driving force she can have is a personal one. Politicians have either neutralised or paralysed all institutions. So it’s not institutions that provide the services but people who have access to public and private ressources. In such conditions, if one is looking for better service, an institutional based approach is a sterile dogmatic one. On the other hand, a personal based approach is not only pragmatic, but also rather fruitful (even if these services lack in quality).

  4. PN said

    “Had it not been for the variety of opinions then things will be very monotonous:-) Hell if we all agree on everything then that could be “the end of history”.”

    LOL. “the end of history” in a very boring way.

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