Friday, June 5, 2009

What do you call sectarian elections? Answer: selections.

I am leaving later today for Paris where I am talking about quality control for traditional foods in Lebanon at this Unesco conference. I am leaving right before the Lebanese parliamentary elections. I did not plan it, but I am not displeased about it.

I have not addressed the matter of the elections on this blog, in spite of the fact that Lebanese life has been revolving around them for a number of weeks now. This is a blog about food and farming, and while the candidates have been feeding us vapid words and cultivating sectarian hatred, this did not qualify for posting here. I also blog about politics in times of crisis, but this is hardly a crisis, although its outcome may cause a crisis at a later stage.

I am a non-voter in these elections. Not a blank-voter, just a non-voter. I have been criticized by many friends because I am not chosing to "exercise my democratic right", and I am not participating in the choice of my representatives. What democracy? What choice? Tons of money are flooding the country, to buy votes and sway results, in contravention with all accepted and acceptable norms: these are elections for the rich and powerful. And the country is so divided along sectarian lines, that out of 124 available seats, only 14 seats will actually be fought over. The others are "assured" to the selected candidates of one sect or the other.

Lebanon is a country of sectarian discrimination. There are posts and positions one cannot access because one belongs to the wrong sect. Parliament seats are divided according to sect, and so are state appointments and governmental jobs. People hide behind sects and sectarian leaders who are often also business people and warlords, because they are afraid that the other sects may become too powerful and take some of their privileges. Leaders cultivate fear and hatred with a demagogic discourse. This is how the wars of Lebanon are fueled. To achieve their sectarian goals, the Lebanese use regional and international political dynamics. Sectarian leadership is not ideologically picky: they have been all over the place in the past 30 years, and the same group can swifly move from being pro-US to anti-US, strike deals with Syria and then attack it or open up to Israeli advances and then declare its full support to the Palestinian cause. What is important is the survival of the sect and the retention of its priviledges: this is the real source of power in Lebanon.

It is against this background that the elections have to be perceived. And while there are sects that are more unfavored than others, economically or socially, sectarianism provides the wrong entry point for correcting these situations. This is principally because sectarianism and the discrimination that accompanies it are is the principal forces underlying these inequities. They cannot be corrected by a sectarian agenda or through the sectarian system.

Many people agree with me in Lebanon, or at least they say so. There is a lot of political dissimulation and double discourse going around, and my belief, based on numerous observations over many years, is that people whose ideologies are not strongly anchored in the radical left will always find the right non-sectarian argument in support of their sect.

People often challenge me by telling me to vote for change. Politicians in Lebanon regularly declare themselves secular and anti-sectarian. Why not chose one of those as the recipient of my vote? There are 2 reasons: 1) voting in sectarian elections implies that one endorses the principle of sectarianism as a basis for electing representatives and 2) who can really believe that someone who has been elected within a sectarian system will work towards the destruction of that same system? Logic, strengthened with years of observations, imply that they will contribute to the continuation of the system that gave them power and glory.

One reason that is often given for voting one way or another in these election by people who I know are truly non-sectarian and often atheists (one does not necessarily imply the other in Lebanon), is that one of the 2 choices available (the March 14 coalition and the former Opposition) represent more than the sects they include. For example, the former Opposition, also known as the March 8 coalition (but this should not really apply because of the presence of the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun in the coalition, and he who was not there on March 8- long story) stands also for Resistance and opposition to the Israeli agenda and the US plans for the Middle East. But looking beyond that, one finds that this coalition has no real social and economic agenda, and that past performance does not really indicate that they are concerned with acting on issues of poverty reduction and equity and social justice. The March 14 group, at least, is dominated by neo-liberals, and this provides an important entry point in opposing its program.

To sum up, one has to see these elections as a simple referendum with a yes/no outcome. The question of the referendum is: do you endorse sectarianism? If you do, then go vote, and if you don't then abstain. Within the sectarian system, a vote in these elections is a vote for sectarianism. The only way we have to express our dissatisfaction with the sectarian system is by refusing to play its game. We have to withdraw legitimacy from the system by reducing the number of people who participate in it. And while I fully agree that this is a very long shot (I believe that there will be a very large turn out for these elections), I do not see a better starting point.

There is a big flaw in my position, and it was pointed to me a couple of days ago by a friend who was justifying his decision to vote. He said that this whole line of reasoning would be correct if "not voting" was part of an organized political movement, and if the results were used towards political action. I agree with him, and this needs long term preparation: maybe for the 2o13 elections, if, as we say in Lebanon, we are still alive.

1 comment:

Ms Levantine said...

Sectarian leaders are very happy when people like you don't vote or leave the country. They go out of their way to marginalize you.

Your friend is right, you need to get organized to show your opposition. You have to find the lowest common denominator for all Lebanese and get rid of the zero-sum game.

The problem is that you will have to be very blunt and critical with the traditional politicians. But they are a extremely violent bunch and you have kids.

Stick to agriculture.