Election casts doubt over FPM-LF alliance
Defeat of Aounist candidate leads to recriminations of bad faith
BEIRUT: Independent candidate Jad Tabet’s surprise election as head of Beirut’s Order of Engineers may have cast doubt over the durability of the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces’ alliance, but analysts Monday played down the victory’s repercussions on upcoming parliamentary elections.
Shortly after Tabet beat the FPM’s candidate Paul Najm by a meager 21 votes, social media outlets were swarmed with FPM supporters accusing their allies of crossing out Najm’s name from the ballot and voting for Tabet instead, thereby securing him a victory.
Tabet is an independent candidate who headed the Naqabati (“My Syndicate”) list and was supported by civil society collective Beirut Madinati. Although Tabet was elected as the head of the order, the rest of the seats on the council were won by candidates representing the established political parties.
“Everything on social media represents people’s private opinions and is not the party’s official stance,” an FPM source who was active in the elections told The Daily Star Monday. “There still needs to be an analysis of the numbers and an analysis of the results and this takes time. When the leadership is done with its assessment, then the FPM will take the proper decision and make the required public statements.”
Longtime rivals LF leader Samir Geagea and President Michel Aoun, the founder of the FPM, buried the hatchet in 2015 in a reconciliation dubbed the Maarab Declaration.
A senior source from the FPM revealed the current mindset within the party’s halls of power.
“The leadership is absolutely positive that their loss was the result of the Lebanese Force’s actions,” the source said. “And this is not the first time the party feels slighted by the LF. FPM officials did not put out a statement on the matter, nor will they. They are letting their constituents voice their anger on social media instead,” the source said.
The source pointed to two previous incidents that have soured the relationship between the two parties, whereby the FPM had felt slighted by its newfound allies. The first was when Geagea hinted that he would be open to forming an agreement with Batroun MP Boutros Harb over the district’s parliamentary seats.
Harb has long been considered a popular candidate in the region yet the FPM has been actively seeking to transfer Tripoli’s Christian parliamentary seat to Batroun in a bid to have FPM President and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil finally attain a seat in Parliament after he had failed to secure one during the 2009 elections.
The source recounted another incident in which he considered the FPM was the recipient of a veiled critique from the LF. “The [LF-affiliated] information minister was holding a ceremony honoring Casino du Liban’s chairman of the board of directors and the latter had some criticism of President Michel Aoun’s tenure,” the source said.
“The obvious question arises is why is the LF doing this?” the source added. “They are trying to pressure the FPM. There are certain areas, such as Jbeil and Keserouan, that are closed off for everyone except FPM candidates; they always get these seats. What the LF is doing is pressuring the FPM into allowing them to field their own candidates in these areas and subsequently get a greater share in Parliament.”
The head of the LF engineers’ group, Nazih Matta, denied that there was a centralized decision by his party to cross out the FPM candidate’s name in the recent election.
“There was a lot of confusion in the negotiations between us, the FPM and the other parties,” he told The Daily Star. “After we withdrew our candidate [late in the race] we were still deciding our course of action, yet the FPM kept stalling. They would call us at 8 p.m. and say 10 minutes and you’ll have your answer. Then they would call us at 9 p.m. saying the same thing. This went on until 2 a.m. Saturday night.”
The LF and the FPM were negotiating on how they would be represented in the council. Since the FPM was fielding the candidate for the head of the order, the understanding was that the LF would take two of five council seats in return. Yet with the understanding yet to be confirmed as the vote drew near, dissidence spread among the LF’s voting members.
“Some of our people were very upset by this. They thought they were being taken for a ride by the FPM; I saw it before my eyes and some of them got very enraged,” he said. “These are the people who crossed out the [FPM candidate’s] name I think, but the decision from [the LF headquarters at] Maarab was clear, we were told to vote for the list as it is and that’s what the majority of the LF engineers did.”
Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese political analyst, said it would take some time for the historic reconciliation between the FPM and LF to translate into a similar coming together of their respective supporters.
“We have to remember that there have been decades of animosity between these two parties,” he told The Daily Star.
“This will not disappear just like that. The agreement was between the party leadership at the highest levels, but it the relationship between the popular cadres still needs time to develop.”
He added that the political parties may have underestimated their opponents, which resulted in the independent’s surprising victory.
“Najm was backed by the LF, the Future Movement, the FPM, Hezbollah and Amal. To them, there was no way they could lose so they did not activate their campaign coordinators. There was no serious work done on the ground. While the Naqabati people exerted their full effort into this and worked really hard.”
Yet he placed substantial weight on the electorate’s dissatisfaction with the institutional political parties. “People are fed up with the system and I think this is being reinforced because of the debate over the electoral law,” he said. “Which makes me think: Maybe the political parties will create an even more tailor-made electoral law that would ensure the reproduction of their candidates.”
Yet Chafic Masri, another political analyst, warned against exaggerating civil society’s triumph.
“What happened is not that radically new or drastic and is not the kind of shift that would see civil society having a newfound role. The independent candidate won because he was also supported by the Progressive Socialist Party and the Kataeb Party, and that cannot be forgotten. Of course, civil society activists played a role but we cannot dismiss the role of the [established] parties,” he said.
“But it is a good positive start and I hope it continues. It makes the youth feel like they are now at the center of the page after having been on the margins for so long.”
Longtime rivals Geagea and Aoun agreed to bury the hatchet in 2015.