Why Hezbollah is sweating in Baalbek
The party came uncomfortably close to losing a ‘safe’ city council
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.”