Why Hezbol­lah is sweat­ing in Baal­bek

The party came un­com­fort­ably close to los­ing a ‘safe’ city coun­cil

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Ni­dal al-Solh

BAAL­BEK, Le­banon: In Hezbol­lah’s north­east­ern re­doubt of Baal­bek, elec­tion vic­to­ries are typ­i­cally taken for granted.

But that may change af­ter the first round of mu­nic­i­pal polls on May 8.

The party won with 54 per­cent of the vote, ac­cord­ing to fi­nal re­sults from the In­te­rior Min­istry, while its near­est op­po­si­tion gained 46 per­cent – a com­fort­able enough mar­gin in most elec­tions, but wor­ry­ing slim com­pared to the 2010 vote.

That year, Hezbol­lah walked away with around 70 per­cent of the vote – mean­ing sup­port among res­i­dents has dropped by around a quar­ter over the past six years.

Lo­cal res­i­dents at­tribute the drop in Hezbol­lah’s pop­u­lar­ity in the mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions to sev­eral rea­sons, the most im­por­tant of which is the party’s peren­nial con­trol of the lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion.

De­spite pledges over the past 12 years to re­vi­tal­ize the area, the party has failed to halt a con­tin­ued de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of eco­nomic, touris­tic and liv­ing con­di­tions.

There has also been a no­table ab­sence of de­vel­op­ment projects that could create job op­por­tu­ni­ties for the city’s res­i­dents.

This is in ad­di­tion to the un­sta­ble se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion in Baal­bek, which led to kid­nap­ping for ran­som in­ci­dents, thefts and im­po­si­tion of pro­tec­tion money on shop own­ers.

Se­cu­rity con­di­tions are so foul they were the pri­mary mo­ti­va­tion for the main op­po­si­tion, Baal­bek Mad­i­nati (“Baal­bek My City”), ac­cord­ing to Ghaleb Yaghi, who headed the list.

“The de­ci­sion with our col­leagues to con­test the mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion bat­tle was spurred by the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing sit­u­a­tion in Baal­bek as a re­sult of law­less­ness, whose neg­a­tive im­pact re­flected on the so­cioe­co­nomic sit­u­a­tion of the city’s res­i­dents,” Yaghi told a news con­fer­ence at­tended by the list’s mem­bers in Baal­bek Fri­day.

Baal­bek Mad­i­nati, which was backed by for­mer Min­is­ter Char­bel Na­has, was at­tempt­ing to wrest con­trol of the city’s 21-mem­ber mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil away from Hezbol­lah, which has dom­i­nated it for the past 12 years.

Hezbol­lah backed the Loy­alty and De­vel­op­ment list, which was also sup­ported by the Amal Move­ment and other al­lies from the March 8 coali­tion.

Hezbol­lah’s slim vic­tory over the up­start op­po­si­tion has raised ques­tions about the party’s level of sup­port in the strong­hold.

“Hezbol­lah did not mo­rally win the elec­toral bat­tle in Baal­bek as re­flected in the vot­ing booths,” said a lo­cal of­fi­cial who asked not to be iden­ti­fied.

“Hezbol­lah is fac­ing in­ter­nal frus­tra­tion, in ad­di­tion to prob­lems among its lo­cal com­man­ders.”

The ex­pert said Hezbol­lah’s in­volve­ment in the 5-year-old war in Syria has also prompted Sunni vot­ers and some Shi­ite vot­ers to vote for Baal­bek Mad­i­nati.

The party’s rel­a­tively weak show­ing has also raised ques­tions about its sup­port for pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion in any na­tional elec­toral law be­cause un­der such a law, Hezbol­lah’s op­po­nents could win some seats in Par­lia­ment and mu­nic­i­pal coun­cils – po­ten­tially weak­en­ing Hezbol­lah’s hand at the na­tional level.

But by all in­di­ca­tions, Baal­bek’s res­i­dents were vot­ing ac­cord­ing to lo­cal is­sues last week.

In ad­di­tion to poor se­cu­rity, res­i­dents com­plained about the Hezbol­lah-backed mu­nic­i­pal coun­cils’ per­for­mance when it comes to eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and tourism.

Vi­tal projects to re­vive th­ese sec­tors were never im­ple­mented, res­i­dents said. This is es­pe­cially prob­lem­atic when it comes to tourism: Baal­bek is en­dowed with an­cient – and al­ready fa­mous – Ro­man ru­ins ripe with tourist po­ten­tial.

“Baal­bek is a touris­tic city [known for its] ru­ins. Tourism must con­sti­tute a main source of in­come for the liveli­hood of its res­i­dents. How­ever, un­for­tu­nately, there are no lo­cal and for­eign tourists in Baal­bek,” the op­po­si­tion’s Yaghi said. “Even its res­i­dents who live out­side Baal­bek now fear vis­it­ing their city be­cause they fear for their lives and the lives of their chil­dren.”

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