Lebanon’s Momentum for Change Should not be Wasted
September 13, 2020

“All of them”, really?

 

The slogan sounds good, let’s admit it. It strikes just where it hurts: all of you are no good to Lebanon. All of you failed the Lebanese. “We want to replace the whole structure, the whole bunch of politicians altogether”.

It’s a phrase we have been hearing over and over again from the first days of our very own October Revolution, back in 2019.

All over Lebanon, from North to South, the Lebanese who took to the streets chanted the now famous slogan “Kellon yeene kellon”, demanding a drastic change in the Lebanese politics.

Let’s put things back in perspective. October 17, 2019, the decision to impose a tax on WhatsApp calls was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. And it broke it well. The Lebanese had had already enough with the crippling economic crisis the country was going through, the rampant unemployment, and the endemic corruption at all levels of the administration. For many observers, the people’s wake was no surprise. It had to happen; the Lebanese were fed up of being mistreated, misled, mismanaged by a government that did nothing for its people, that never kept a promise, and what’s even worse, was watching the boat sink without acting. Except there was no replacement plan, there has never been any, and to date, there still is none.

The first weeks following the start of the Revolution made it clear that despite the fact that everyone sensed that a change was inevitable, there was absolutely no consensus on how this change might unfold, and above all who will this change sweep from the current political chessboard.

The thing is: the crisis left the Lebanese even more divided than they used to be. A growing part of the Lebanese could no longer feel represented by the very ones they once put their trust in and voted for. But they also can’t seem to settle for the others, whose ideology and battles are often close to theirs, because they once were their embodied enemies.

The result was “kellon yeene kellon”, we want no one. Fine, then who?

To date, no one was able to give a clear answer to this question, and the reason is there is none. You can’t make a change from scratch, and no good changes have ever come out of anarchy. The change can only happen from within, and History has always proved it.

Nevertheless, the disenchantment for traditional parties is not a Lebanese exception, and it is not new. Frédéric Sawicki, a French political scientist wrote in an article published in 2016, that the political parties are accused of serving their leaders’ interests first, as well as of being unable to conduct changes once in power.[1]

The author adds that French President Macron did use these critics to position himself as a natural and direct representative of the people.

But then again, just a few months into his election, and despite the fact that his political party did gain some popularity, Macron is often labeled rightist instead of the center he aimed at representing.

The same need of a change can be noted all over the Globe. Hence, traditional political parties are indeed challenged today by newcomers, “independent” movements, that seduce especially younger generations.

In an article published in The Washington Post on February 23, 2019, author Anne Applebaum puts it right: “The question now is whether something as amorphous as an “Independent” group can attract the voters left politically homeless by these changes.”[2]

Taking to the streets to express the refusal of political parties is no new phenomenon, but it does tend to steadily increase from over a decade.

Do these street protests achieve their goals though? In a comprehensive paper about the “problem of political parties”, political analyst Patrick Liddiard says: “these protests and mass mobilization efforts have not replaced the need for political parties—in fact, they demonstrate the singular role political parties play in democratic representation and accountability”. [3] The author adds that these protests end up transforming into political parties. This is what happened with “Podemos” in Spain, triggered by the “indignados” movement back in 2014. This new-born political party was able to break the decades-long two-party system in Spain. But how far did it go? On May 5th, 2021, Podemos founder Pablo Iglesias left the party and politics altogether, after having failed in the latest Madrid regional election. Just 7 years into a dazzling entry in politics, the party that promised a deep change seems to have come to an end.

Similarly, France’s Alliance Jaune, born in the process of the Yellow Vest movement, won as little as 0.6% percent of the votes in the European Parliament election in 2019. According to Patrick Liddiard (op.cit.) “more supporters of the Yellow Vest movement voted for the right-wing populist National Rally than Alliance Jaune.”

In light of these failed experiences of popular uprisings turning into political actors, one can wonder about the possible outcome of the same old song “kellon yeene kellon”. Better yet, everyone chanting this mantra should know better by now: there’s no possible breakthrough with this reject-everybody policy.

You want to make a change? You need the political parties. According to Ronaldo Alfaro Redondo, in his 2014 paper about the decline of political parties, “parties are viewed as crucial to democracies because they play several key functions within the society”[4]. One of those key functions is certainly the elections. The parties do play a pivotal role in pushing people to vote, hence allowing democracies to function.

That does not mean, of course, that the existing, so-called traditional parties don’t have some introspection to do. They do have to question the phenomenon of the people’s disenchantment in politics in general. Most of them haven’t been able to ride the wave of change when it first felt needed. People’s discontentment of political parties and politics in general is understandable, because they simply didn’t feel listened to and acknowledged. Hence, the traditional parties have to understand that they need to change; they have to adapt to a new social reality, and, instead of rejecting criticisms, they have to understand it’s about time to act.

In a very comprehensive paper published by Cambridge University online on June 29, 2020, the authors say that “the antidote (to the disenchantment of the people, editor’s note) should be neither party bans nor cordon sanitaire but a new remedy that leads to the revitalization of the traditional parties at the core of the democratic body.”[5]

The only actors capable of halting the decline of political parties are indeed… political parties themselves. They have to work on being attractive again, especially to the younger generations. The messages have to be heard and dealt with. The only way to counter populist threats is through a greater responsiveness of the parties.

The rendezvous is set for the next Lebanese parliamentary elections. Let’s work for change.

 

[1] Frédéric Sawicki, “Les partis politiques sont-ils dépassés?”, in Les grands dossiers des sciences humaines 2016/9, published in Cairns.info. https://www.cairn.info/magazine-les-grands-dossiers-des-sciences-humaines-2016-9-page-7.htm

[2] Anne Applebaum “ Is this the end of political parties?” in The Washington Post, February 23, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/is-this-the-end-of-political-parties/2019/02/22/39b46568-36aa-11e9-854a-7a14d7fec96a_story.html

[3] Patrick Liddiard, “What can be done about the problem of the political parties?” in History and public policy program, published by Wilson Center.

https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/publication/liddiard_what_can_be_done_about_the_problem_of_political_parties_september_2019.pdf

[4] Are political parties in decline? By Ronaldo Alfaro Redondo,

https://tse.go.cr/revista/art/18/alfaro_redondo.pdf

[5] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/european-political-science-review/article/party-decline-or-social-transformation-economic-institutional-and-sociological-change-and-the-rise-of-antipoliticalestablishment-parties-in-western-europe/FFEF55CA9CFD1CB2CF3D3B0B1A55EE80

 

 

Joumana Debs
Joumana Debs
Joumana El Debs took over the direction of Meirss in January 2021. She is a Lebanese lawyer, and Director of the Public Law Department at the Faculty of Law of La Sagesse University in Beirut, as well as a law professor at ESA Business School in Beirut. She earned her PhD in constitutional law from the Faculty of Law at Saint-Joseph University on the topic: “Democracy at the test of the Lebanese consociational regime”, for which she won the Prize of the Michel Edde contest of the best thesis in public governance, in 2020. Dr El Debs published in November 2011 a co-written book with HE Prof Ibrahim Najjar on the topic “Chronicles in the margin of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.”