Lebanon is not a state governed by a democratically elected government. It is a composition of competing feudalities with a thin veil of democracy and legitimacy thrown carelessly on top of them.
The latest flagrant display of this happened on Sunday when PSP leader Walid Jumblatt officially introduced his son Taymour to the political sphere in a ceremony reminiscent of royal coronations, all the way down to the official passing of the kufiyah –a symbolic garb of the party leadership and the Palestinian cause- in front of a gathered crowd of thousands.
MP Walid Jumblatt had himself inherited this political party –a major player in our national politics- when his father, Kamal Jumblatt, was assassinated 40 years ago.
The crowd in attendance was noticeably large and committed, rivaling the Riad Solh Square protest in number and enthusiasm. But more than that, the attitude of party loyalists at this ceremony exhibited the sustained public support that the PSP has benefited from for many years.
Major political parties being run like family businesses is not exclusive to the PSP. In the Lebanese political landscape it is the norm. The Kataeb, the Free Patriotic Movement, the Marada, and the Future Party (among others) are prominent examples of this practice. When a citizen subscribes to a major political party in Lebanon, they are implicitly pledging their loyalty not merely to their political leader who represents their interest, but also to his descendants whatever their ideas and competence levels may be.
The purpose of democracy is for voters to elevate into positions of power people who intend to act in a way that is in line with voter priorities. If a politician is guaranteed a place at the decision table no matter how they think, no matter what they do, then the citizen has been totally disconnected from his government. Their beliefs and priorities have no chance of being mirrored in the government’s actions.
How has this system that clearly disadvantaged the great majority of citizens been sustained for so long? The answer is simple, by convincing the Lebanese people to vote based on their identity rather than their political ideas. For the most part they are born into their parties or else initiated into them at a young age. This unequal relationship does not benefit them nearly as much as it benefits the party leadership, yet they fail to separate themselves from their obligations towards the leaders who exploit them because they are fundamentally motivated by the desire to be among their own and the primal mistrust of those who they deem as the others.
This is why identity based politics has found greater success in Lebanon than issues based politics. This is why citizens consistently vote against their own interests. And this video serves as a prime example.
The feudal aspects of Lebanese parties is not merely implicit. Leadership positions are passed from father to son, the ruling body exerts complete control over party actions and finances, most of all the leadership of these parties is exclusive and inaccessible by up and coming party members. It is impossible for an outsider to one of those ruling families to rise in the ranks of the party hierarchy and be given a leadership position unless they shrewdly marry a relative of a current ruler. This form of diplomatic union is archaic, and prevalent in antiquity.
There can be no doubt that the Lebanese party model is a superficially modernized version of the feudal state. In the national political landscape, these thinly veiled monarchies among us feud, shift alliances when their interests demand it and commit to longstanding rivalries with flagrant disregard for the common citizen who is harmed by chronic instability and worsening life conditions.
For the rational political observer, the PSP’s ceremonial transition of power as broadcast on local television seems profoundly surreal. It is difficult to fathom how such a thing could be done as matter of course and deemed normal, even a source of pride for the crowd in attendance.
Ritualistically presenting the heir to the throne to a cheering crowd is highly reminiscent of the most prominent Disney movie of our childhood: The Lion King. It was difficult to take it seriously.
But then beyond the initial absurdity we remember the realities of local politics and how irrelevant a citizen who votes on the issues truly is in an environment where political figures are ensured career longevity regardless of their performance while in office.
This is not a thing that is easily asked of a voting public, but unless electors in mass insist that candidates present a political program instead of expecting to be elected on the basis of their family name, unless “no program, no vote” (more on that in a future post) becomes a universally demanded criteria for deserving political support, Lebanese citizens must not expect their condition to improve.