The democracy of the 20%

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The Beirut Municipal elections on the 8th of May 2016, were the first ever elections to be held in Lebanon since 2010. This meant that these elections were the first to be held in this democratic nation since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. A lot was in stake, as the extremely politically and religiously divided country needs strong representation from every one of its myriad of ethnicities and religious groups to be truly considered democratic.

The run to the elections couldn’t have been more filled with hype. The streets were filled with fliers of political hopefuls, and cars with massive loudspeakers drove around the city blaring music, and waving the flags of their political parties. There were even marches from dawn to dusk where people chanted slogans and sang song, burning torches and carrying pictures of martyrs. The atmosphere was expecting, fearful and full of the feeling of upcoming changes that can only be felt during elections. In Beirut the feeling was heightened, as the garbage crisis was still fresh on people’s minds, and no-one wanted Beirut to ever again be associated with garbage, filth and corruption.

The Election Day was one of the strangest experiences I had ever witnessed. Our television and internet had mysteriously stopped working on that morning, and when we left on the streets they were eerily quiet.  Cars had been removed from the streets and political parties had set up their own tents near the voting stations, possibly expecting to change people’s minds at the last moment. Smiling citizens walked out of the voting stations, brandishing their ink covered index finger as a proud proof they had done their duty for the nation. The presence of armed guards made the situation seem a bit less jovial, and every person was frisk searched before they were allowed to enter the voting areas. The elections results didn’t seem to be the only thing people were expecting.

After the election it took multiple days for the Ministry of interior to give out the results, and there were strong allegations of fraud going around even before all the ballots had been counted. Once the results were posted, they were in most parts just as people had thought, with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s, the nascent social movement winning roughly 40 percent of the vote.

The biggest surprise wasn’t however fraud or political violence, but the fact that only 20% of the registered voters in Beirut cast their votes. People were shocked, disappointed and ashamed by the seeming lack of regard for democracy. Of the roughly 2 million residents of Beirut only 470 000 had the possibility to vote in Beirut, and a large portion of them live outside the country. This meant that the lack of voting wasn’t only about disregard for democracy, but more with the fact that the people are forced to vote in their own areas of the country leaving Beirut for the small group of people that actually have right to cast their votes there.

Whatever was the real reason for the lack of voting in Beirut Municipal elections, the reaction of the people was the most showing part of it all. Immediately people began to question the state of democracy in Lebanon and rallied behind the voting system, that they felt was being destroyed by sheer negligence. Nothing is more harmful to democracy than the people giving up on it. For an authoritarian system to rise, the people first have to be either fooled into thinking they cannot rule themselves, or that ruling themselves is too much work. In either case, the people will give up their freedom for not believing in themselves and their own ability to make decisions about the society.

Written by Otto Kaplas, a current regional intern at the WYA Middle East office in Lebanon.