National embarrassment
(Daily Star 11/4/2000)
For a country that prides itself on being in the vanguard of Arab democracy, Sunday’s municipal election in Jdeideh, Metn, has Lebanon looking like an impostor. Hundreds of naturalized bedouin were bussed in from the Bekaa to support a list of candidates backed by Interior Minister Michel Murr, putting the lie to any notion that Lebanese officialdom views the election process as anything other than an annoyance.
The slate in question calls itself the “List for Change” no one ever accused Murr of lacking a sense of humor and a member of the group, Michel Qassouf, indicated rather clearly that his understanding of democracy is severely lacking. “They’re Lebanese and have the right to vote,” he said of the bedouin “parachuted” into the town to cast ballots.
No reasonable person would question the right of naturalized citizens to vote, but nor would one assert that people should vote in constituencies wherein they themselves have no interests at stake. How can a voter be expected to cast an informed ballot when he or she knows nothing about the issues in question, the concerns of the community, or the character of the contenders?
Even worse, Qassouf attempted to defend the use of these “mercenary” voters by claiming that when the same tactic was used against him in 1998, he felt no need to complain. That, in his view, apparently gave him and his allies the right to benefit from the politics of slime this time around. But what about the next time? Should the people of this country mimic Qassouf’s behavior and simply accept that shameless skullduggery will always be part of the process whenever we elect representatives to municipal councils or Parliament? If so, why should we bother holding elections at all? If polling is to be no more than an exercise in creating the appearance of popular consultation, it would be much less expensive and far more honorable to do away with the pretense of democracy altogether and simply have officials appointed.
Having people brought in to vote “blind” was bad enough, but the organization that monitored the voting also cited transgressions that went beyond the realm of “dirty tricks” and deep into the provinces of official encroachment on the electoral process and shameless thuggery. State officials were enlisted to help solicit support for a political group, and many voters were subjected to heavy pressure including various forms of intimidation.
Murr has been accused of similar funny business in the past, and this is just the latest smoking gun. We have to hope that he did nothing untoward, that his allies became overzealous. But even if that is the case, there is no disputing that this entire episode took place on his watch. Yes, he temporarily delegated his powers regarding the election to preserve the appearance of impartiality, but he remained the minister and so must bear much of the responsibility for what can only be described as a national embarrassment.
Murr’s colleagues in the Cabinet may not be surprised by what happened, but surely they must feel anger and humiliation for having been tainted by association. Even if the will of the people has not been thwarted outright, it has at the very least been sullied by the tactics of those whose hunger for the power and prestige of public office is matched only by their disdain for the sanctity and supremacy of the democratic process. Especially for those ministers who are also MPs, the disgusting events that took place in Jdeideh must have been a slap in the face because as a result, all Lebanese holders of elected office have been demeaned.
Why have Premier Hoss and the other members of the Cabinet not condemned Sunday’s sham? It may simply be that they have benefited from similar irregularities in the past and so have no desire to question them now, or it may be that they have no desire to get on the powerful Murr’s bad side. Either way, they therefore make a damning statement about the state of Lebanese politics: if our “best and brightest” lack the integrity and/or the courage to speak out when voters are treated like sheep and they themselves have been insulted, we need new ones.
All Lebanese felt instinctively that what happened on Sunday was wrong. Because this is a developing country with little knowledge of rights taken for granted elsewhere, however, many people need reinforcement of what they already believe but do not yet know. President Lahoud would do his country proud by denouncing the hijacking of democracy in Jdeideh and calling for a new vote to be held as soon as possible. Harsh medicine perhaps, but this is an acute and chronic disease that must be eradicated.