Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

The day I participated in the municipal elections

Posted by worriedlebanese on 04/06/2010

I’ve been wanting to post something about these elections for a long time. I actually wrote two short post about it without publishing them. I noted a couple of thoughts  a week before the elections (on April 21st), then I scribbled my impression the night before election day (May 1st) and here I am today trying to make sens of it all.

I will publish today the two posts that I had written and haven’t published yet.

No local elections in my hometown! Does it matter? (written on April 21st)

It’s official. There will be no elections this year in my hometown. In fact, there has never been local elections in this small town of Mount Lebanon. Members of the municipal council have always run unrivalled, unchallenged… Several candidates gradually drop out from the election and on election day, there are just as many candidates as their are seats to fill. So instead of being elected, these candidates are instituted as members of the municipal council by the Ministry of the Interior. The neutralisation of elections through “consensual list” building is no new or exceptional phenomenon in Lebanon. It is actually sought after by many. Why? The answer is quite openly stated and very often repeated: consensual lists prevent division within towns, villages and family. This is undoubtedly true, but aren’t all elections divisive? Aren’t they supposed to be? Aren’t you supposed to have different groups competing, different programs, with a loser and a winner? This fear of divisiveness says a lot about our current political culture, but does it say anything about our political system? I don’t think so.

Some dogmatics will undoubtedly stand high on their chairs and start condemning “consensual lists”, “lebanese political culture”, “the ignorance of voters”, the “backwardness of the system”, the “lack of education”. In truth, you would have found me amongst this moralistic crowd a couple of years back. I’ve now abandoned this approach because I find it condescending, paternalistic and extremely unfruitful. Let’s forget a bit about the political culture and look into the political system. And when I speak of political system, I don’t mean the image we have of the system or the image it has of itself. I’m talking about its dynamics. How things work. And to do so, we should see what is at stake in municipal elections and how the different political and social actors interact within its frame.

Breaking news: there will be local elections in my hometown (May 1st)

Two candidates finally decided not to withdraw. So for once, we have more candidates running in these elections than seats to fill. One of them declared quite frankly that she had very little chances of winning, and that she was not competing against the “head of the list” (the past, present and future mayor). Her goal was to allow the people to choose their representatives democratically. So I got the first call asking me to vote, and a second call, and a third call. Then I started receiving ballot papers. In less than three days I received exactly 23 identical papers! There were two arguments attached to these ballot papers, an implicit and an explicit one. The implicit argument was kinship, family solidarity. The explicit one was “the election of this dissenting voice to the municipal council will complicate its work”. The explicit argument doesn’t actually hold. One dissenting voice in the municipal council cannot affect its work, that is the outcome of its meetings. It cannot block a decision or even introduce change. All it can do is express its dissent and compel the council to work according to the rules. As for the implicit argument… well, I was a bit embarrassed by it. But then I said to myself, what’s the counter-argument? Is voting “against” a family member worth the shot in a context like this? I don’t think so. Basically, no one had a program. The municipal does not do much (like most municipal councils in Lebanon), and whatever the outcome of the elections, one thing is for sure, nothing will change. And most importantly, I do not live in that town. So frankly, I don’t care what the municipal council does. And if I have to stick to any principle, it would be to refuse to vote in a town in which I do not live. However, I do have ties with my family, and would like to maintain them. So I had to vote… well, you can guess the outcome.

So to sum things up, here’s the situation I was facing: I am called to vote in a town in which I do not live. This town was established in the late 1950s. So there are no “old customs”, “old families”, etc…  Nevertheless, the whole electoral operation is centred on family: People will vote according to family, the lists reflect an alliance between families and reflect a hierarchical order in the town (in which dissent is understood as “seditious”). So the central question is, how come things so traditionnal are found in a new town?

(to be continued)

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