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05.13.22

Tripoli amidst Lebanon’s 2022 Parliamentary Elections: New Faces, Elite Reshuffling and Public Disinterest

May Tamimova,
Zeina Helou

As the 2022 parliamentary elections draw nearer by the day, new patterns of pre-electoral behavior are emerging in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city. This election season is characterized by the transactional nature of vote buying, the reshuffling of political networks, and the lack of political mobilization and discourse. These changes are associated with the withdrawal of the Future Movement, the failure of the opposition groups to produce a coherent list, and the appearance of new faces and capital on the political scene, all of which are influencing both candidate campaigning strategies and voter expectations.

The North II district, which comprises the sub-districts of Tripoli, Minieh and Dannieh, has a total of 392,3871 registered voters who will elect 8 Sunnis, 1 Alawite, 1 Greek Orthodox, and 1 Maronite into the Lebanese parliament. In the 2018 elections, less than 40% of Tripoli’s voters made it to the polls during critical and decisive elections for the leadership of Lebanon’s Sunni communities.2 This time around, the percentage of voters is expected to witness a significant drop.3 The article explains why by zooming into pre-election dynamics in Tripoli in the week leading up to Election Day on May 15th.  

Candidate Profiles 
Eleven lists are running in North II, four of which are backed by deeply-rooted political elites. The first is headed by Mustafa Alloush, former vice president of the Future Movement, who is exploiting the remnants of the latter’s support base yet carefully trailblazing his own political route. The second, supported by Najib Mikati, although he himself is not running, includes Abdelkarim Kabbara, whose family was previously aligned with the Future Movement, as well as Suleiman Obeid, son of former MP in Tripoli. The third is the list of Faisal Karami, who is considered a Hezbollah ally, while the fourth is that of Ashraf Rifi, who is allied with the Lebanese Forces (LF), and maintains an anti-Hezbollah stance. 
The seven other lists are newcomers of various affiliations. These include the lists of Omar Harfouch and Ihab Matar, both expats with deep pockets, a list backed by Bahaa Hariri, and three lists of self-proclaimed opposition groups and figures that were active in the October 17 Revolution. In most of the opposition lists, opposition figures have either allied themselves with figures of the old establishment or with Islamists in a bid to increase their chances of winning. An exception is the Capable/Kadirin list, formed by the Citizens in a State political party, which is running in all 15 electoral districts across Lebanon, aiming to form, out of these lists, an alternative national assembly. 

Shifting to newcomers with capital 
The economic crisis in Tripoli has taken a toll on the power and expansiveness of old clientelist networks that widely emerge in the lead up to the elections. The impact of the economic crisis has lowered the value of goods and number of services that political elites provide, leaving their constituencies in acute financial need. This unprecedented economic situation is being exploited by new independent candidates bringing in capital amassed from abroad. New terms of vote buying are “blunter” and more transactional than they used to be in the 2018 and 2009 parliamentary elections.4  Today, voters are “shopping” around for small cash amounts, leaving their vote unpredictable.5 The top spenders in Tripoli are currently the Lebanese Forces (through Rifi) who are using traditional channels, as well as newcomers Matar and Harfouch, who are operating separately from any political machine. 6

Political Network Reshuffling 

With the withdrawal of the Future Movement and the emergence of contenders with capital, Tripoli’s political elites are reshuffling their positions to guarantee their places in the city’s new political arena. Key figures from former parties, namely the Future Movement, have settled with newcomers, thus reshaping their networks, discourses and alliances. Clientelist networks that work through electoral keys or ‘brokers’ and powerful individuals who secure votes for politicians, are also venturing into some reshuffling. In this round of elections, a few brokers regularly used by establishment politicians are less busy than usual, while a new class of brokers favored by newcomers with capital is being activated, although its effectiveness is yet to be determined. As things stand now, the lists of Mikati and Alloush are reducing the number of their electoral keys, leaving some of their most substantial ones behind.  Rifi is using a hierarchal system by dividing his constituency into sectors led by a small number of electoral keys. By contrast, newcomer Matar is using a high number of small family brokers. There is also fierce competition over electoral keys between Elie Khoury, the LF candidate on Rifi’s list and Suleiman Obeid on Mikati’s list. This points out to the fact that keeping LF out of Tripoli is a key political issue, if not the most important one.  

Limited political mobilization and discourse 
Overall, discourse and policy proposal in this round of elections is very limited. In the elections of 2009 and 2018, candidates connected to the political establishment held campaigning activities, including outreach in large meetings, festivals and other events that contributed to building a popular support base for political elites in visible and affective ways. As coercion tactics, these events turned previous elections into a collective process that led to both mobilization and competition. The upcoming elections are different in that these two elements are not visible on Tripoli’s streets today. The absence of these events is indicative of the lack of political programs and policies developed by candidates, and their reduced interest in reaching out to their constituencies and catering to their needs. Another element missing from the political discourse of most lists is attention to local solutions to Lebanon’s economic and political crises. Candidates are opting for existential rhetoric, in which foreign actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia take center stage. This boils down political discourse to generalities and ideological opposition. A few exceptions on opposition lists are showing attention to policy in meetings held on grass root levels. 

In conclusion, the mood in Tripoli is that of confusion and demobilization7,  as no popular base is being consolidated prior to the elections. Most opposition lists lack clear political programs, with some of them including figures who were close to political elites. These are consequently unable to attract the anti-establishment vote. At the same time, old political networks have taken a hit in the economic crisis, thereby making room for new faces, which, in the past, would have either been eyed with a greater deal of suspicion, or absorbed into establishment lists. These political scene newcomers are promising change but are building on exploitative tactics left by the old establishment while setting the stage for even more harmful clientelist contracts. Tripoli finds itself marred by a political vacuum that is being temporarily filled with large sums of money, but that will end up deepening frustration and marginalization on the long run. 

 


[1] Data provided by the Ministry of Interior 

[2] This period was marked by a power struggle between Saad Hariri and Najib Mikati, who broke Hariri’s political hegemony over Lebanon’s Sunni communities.

[3] This is based on unpublished findings by an expert surveyor in Tripoli.  

[4] In previous elections, vote buying was common but less openly admitted especially in the period leading up to the elections (in comparison to Election Day, where vote buying is standard practice).

[5] This behavior (and term) has been reported by sources in Tripoli.

[6] Political machine, or makana, is the term used for a political apparatus that comprises brokers who ensure a candidate will receive the desired number of votes. This machine facilitates the vote-buying process. 

[7] See also this article for the description of voting mood in North II https://today.lorientlejour.com/article/1296664/in-the-north-ii-constituency-indecision-is-coupled-with-demobilization.html

 

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