Independent student factions recently achieved major wins Lebanese university elections, a victory that was received by the majority of the Lebanese as a positive sign ahead of potential national parliamentary elections that could take place after the current term expires in Spring 2022.
Unfortunately, this optimism is totally unfounded. A proper reading of these student elections in their national context reveals the corrupt political establishment is still firmly entrenched and will likely win in any future elections.
In Lebanon, student elections are somewhat of a national sport and a long-standing tradition which takes places across university campuses every Fall. They offer an occasion for different political parties, as well as independent groups, to compete for different forms of student government and earn bragging rights both on and off campus.
For the traditional political parties, success in student elections gives them a public messaging victory that they can present as affirming their national popularity. For the anti-establishment student factions, the elections might be the only safe and democratic avenues to push through a new breed of independent voices who, in contrast to the archaic political parties, practice what they preach.
Over the years, elections in Lebanon’s main private universities – such as the American University of Beirut (AUB), Lebanese American University (LAU), and the University of Saint Joseph (USJ) – have witnessed independent students challenging the hegemony of the traditionalists. This year, which has been shaped by the onset of the October 17 2019 revolution, independents thrived as traditionalists found it difficult to appeal to their usual voter bases.
But despite this noticeable and encouraging win, it is important to take a step back and acknowledge that parliamentary elections are shaped by a range of other objective factors and might not yield a similar outcome.
A primary difference is the conditions under which the elections take place. Student elections in Lebanon’s main universities takes place under somewhat fair and transparent conditions, where physical and moral intimidation is prohibited by the university administration. Unlike the Lebanese state authorities, the university administrations will not hesitate to take disciplinary measures against any individuals or parties who try to bully their fellow students.
More importantly, the electoral system and the seat distribution for these elections are based on a different, fairer electoral system. Whereas national elections use a complicated formula to ensure all of Lebanon’s religious communities are represented by quotas, universities have a level playing field for non-affiliated independent students; AUB and LAU, for example, have proportional representation on the model of “one man, one vote.” This helps ensure that the traditional parties do not monopolize representation on campus, in contrast to in national elections.
National elections are far removed from the logic or principle of equal representation, as the various electoral laws are always tailored to ensure the hegemony of whoever is in power. The recent election in 2018 is a case in point. For a long time, many election enthusiasts have demanded the adoption of proportional representation, which was implemented in some form in 2018. However, the eventual system put in place replaced fairness with gerrymandering, which instead of empowering independents made sure to stump them once and for all. The ruling elite hammered out an electoral law that was proportional in theory but kept large electoral districts with a high electoral threshold, meaning that in reality it was impossible for non-party affiliates to break through.
Secondly, student elections are monitored and administered by the various university administrations, mainly their deans of student affairs, who have no direct stake in the outcome of the result and thus are under no obligation to meddle or to rigg the results. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for the government entities that oversee the national elections. It is customary for the majority of the cabinet, including the premier and the minister of the interior, to be entrusted with running the electoral process – even though they themselves are running for office, undermining any notion of impartiality. To add insult to injury, the appointment of an independent commission to monitor the elections was nothing but a charade; the members of the commission rubber-stamped the results despite them being riddled with irregularities and even fraud.
The role of coercion is also an important factor. On campus, the resources of the traditional political parties as well as the arms of their militias including Hezbollah are useless and cannot be used to sway the vote. In contrast, Hezbollah has no shame in suppressing the vote or even fixing the national election ballot results in the areas of the country it controls, a practice in which the Lebanese authorities were also complicit.
The Lebanese as a whole are still looking for an easy way out of their current predicament. One hope is that elections will deliver salvation. However, no amount of student council wins can change the reality that democracy cannot exist in Lebanon when the Lebanese state is controlled by the ruling oligarchs who have established a bond with Hezbollah and its weapons. This pact ensures that any thrust for democratic reform is quickly dismissed.
Until they reclaim their state, the Lebanese cannot count on elections to provide the salvation they need.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. His forthcoming book Conflict on Mount Lebanon: The Druze, the Maronites and Collective Memory (Edinburgh University Press) covers collective identities and the Lebanese Civil War.