BEIRUT: Claudia Abboud, 49, has never voted in Lebanese elections. Reinvigorated with a sense of civic duty following the rise of new independent political parties, she now dedicates time to organize information sessions for her candidate of choice Charbel Nahas, a former telecommunications minister and the founder of the Mouwatinoun w Mouwatinat fi Dawle (Citizens Within a State) movement.
“There’s a quote by Einstein that really persuaded me to be involved: ‘Problems cannot be solved with the same thinking used that created them,’” Abboud told The Daily Star, highlighting her disillusion with Lebanon’s established parties.
Abboud singlehandedly organized the first such meeting with Nahas, held at a small restaurant in the Metn town of Baabdat at the end of March.
“I called him to see if he would want to speak and when he arrived in person, I was a bit surprised. He came to speak for himself, he didn’t send a representative,” she said.
An intimate group of first-time voters and veterans seeking political alternatives arrived with ears open and questions at the ready. Coffee in hand, Nahas answered each one.
The second session will take place Thursday, with Abboud expecting a higher turnout this time.
Abboud is one of many who have jumped on the opportunity to vote against the grain in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
“Even though it will take a while to change Lebanon, we need to begin. My involvement now is for the future of my children and my future grandchildren, not me.”
Diana Menhem, 31, took a six-month leave of absence from her job, solely to help independent alliance LiBaladi (For My Country) with its campaign in Beirut. Along with Mouwatinoun w Mouwatinat fi Dawle, LiBaladi is on the Kilna Watani (All for the Nation) electoral list that is representing 66 candidates across 15 districts in the country.
“Some people help by donating money, but I was at a point in my life where I was able to donate my time and not everyone has that luxury,” Menhem told The Daily Star.
“For the first time, I feel that we have an alternative option in this country, and I really felt the sense of responsibility to be part of this alternative myself in any way. There has been a momentum that has built over the past couple of years, and if we don’t act on it now, we’ll kill it.”
As one of 50 core volunteers working with LiBaladi in Beirut, Menhem coordinates efforts across the campaign.
“It’s a 24-hour job,” she said with a laugh. “I have voted in other elections, but I wasn’t politically active. I have never campaigned. But in this first election in nine years, there is a responsibility to present people with a credible alternative. Before, one did not exist, but today, the people have no excuse.”
While Abboud and Menhem have taken it upon themselves to rally votes for these new alternatives, not everyone is convinced.
Samir Nahas, 50, originally from Tripoli, said he does not believe there is unity among civil society groups.
Recalling the height of Lebanon’s trash crisis in 2015, Nahas noted the fragmentation of civil society that in his opinion, lead to the loss of momentum on Beirut’s streets.
“Each of them had their own agenda and began to voice their plans to abolish various unrelated things. Eventually, the waste issue was no longer at the center and the momentum faded,” he said.
Speaking about the upcoming elections, Nahas predicted that independent groups will ultimately fall victim to the same fate as entrenched parties and splinter to pursue their own goals; in turn, Lebanon’s long-standing parties will not feel pressured to make any of the necessary changes. “It’s a shame, there is potential to really sanction the establishment. I’m considering voting for [independent candidates], but I am disappointed,” he said.
Makram Rabah, a 29-year-old voting in Aley, held an even more cynical view toward civil society, despite also separating himself from Lebanon’s established parties.
“I believe these so-called independent candidates are just as populist as the mainstream parties,” he said. “They are rejectionists, but they don’t have credibility. I personally would not vote for 90 percent of them.”
Rabah said he believes optimistic voters will realize after May 6 that elections are not a guarantee of change or reform. But despite his lack of faith in the elections, he still plans on exercising his civil right.
“I will be voting, and I believe everyone should vote. Nothing justifies prolonging the current Parliament, but this is not how we will see real change in the country,” he said.
According to the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Lebanon’s last parliamentary elections in 2009 saw a voter turnout just over 50 percent.
As a neutral and statistics-based organization, LADE could not publically comment on whether the introduction of new independent parties would increase voter turnout. But communication coordinator Haneen Shabshoul noted that the proportional electoral law may, in fact, work against them.
“Though the new electoral law has been called ‘proportional,’ it does not really work that way. In fact it has a bit of a majoritarian affect,” she said.
“For example, with the division of electoral districts, which was cut without abiding by any specific methodology, we have very small districts, making it harder for new parties and the new candidates to run and get out the vote. It also affects the results of a proportional system,” Shabshoul explained.
Compounded by lack of funds in comparison to established parties, Shabshoul said it would be much more difficult for newly established parties to make themselves known.
Still, she remarked, all is speculation and can only be tested come election day.