Outsiders face uphill battle in Lebanese elections

With campaigning in full swing for Lebanon's first national election in nine years, parliament candidate Laury Haytayan was trying to rope in passers-by with her message: She and other political outsiders are running in a new coalition that aims to be an alternative to the country's traditional powers.

Some were clearly reluctant to engage, but that didn't stop the irrepressible Haytayan.

"Hello! Are you registered to vote in Beirut?" she asked as she canvassed the capital's Ashrafieh neighborhood one recent afternoon.

Some acknowledged they were not.

"That's no problem," said Haytayan, as she handed out brochures about the coalition, Kulna Watani —"We Are All Patriots," in Arabic. Explaining that it was a break with the politicians who have run Lebanon for decades since the 1975-1990 civil war, she urged them to vote for it in their own districts.

Watani is hoping to ride a wave of discontent over the country's failing public services, its daily water and power cuts, and its pervasive corruption to create an independent bloc in parliament.

But short on money and campaigning to an electorate doubtful that change is even possible, it is unlikely to win more than a handful of seats in Sunday's parliamentary election.

"We are going to the streets and meeting lots of people who say to us, 'We can't change anything in Lebanon,'" the 42-year-old Haytayan said. "Their experience is right because every time they vote for the same individuals and same people and same political class, because there was no alternative. But today, we created an alternative."

Pierre Choueiry, 27, said he agreed it was time for a change, but wouldn't promise his vote. He said he thought the Lebanese Forces, a former Christian militia during the civil war, was needed to protect Lebanon's Christian population.

"We hope one day we can have someone like you with us," he told Haytayan.

Philippe Aoun, who greeted Haytayan with a smile at his hair salon, said he was voting for the party of incumbent President Michel Aoun. He said he was confident Aoun, who has been in office for 18 months, would steer the country out of its many crises. The two are not related.

Fielding 66 candidates in nine of Lebanon's 15 election districts, Watani is the largest coalition of political outsiders and independents to run for office since the civil war.

Many are civic activists who rose to prominence as organizers of protests over a 2015 trash collection crisis that left garbage in the streets for months and laid bare the extent of the public sector mismanagement plaguing Lebanon. And many were active well before that, struggling to chip away at the complex political patronage networks that have kept the country's civil war-era warlords and their sons in power since 1990.

Other candidates are businessmen, engineers and former journalists like Haytayan, who used to be a reporter on a 1990s TV political news program that has since gone off air. Today she is a manager at the Natural Resource Governance Institute, an international nonprofit.

Haytayan has made a run for parliament twice before, in 2013 and 2014, but those votes were cancelled by politicians who extended their own mandates, citing security concerns caused by the war in neighboring Syria.

Despite a climate ripe for change in this election, polls indicate the Watani coalition's only hope for victory is in a small Beirut district represented by eight seats in the 128-seat national assembly, according to political analyst Abdo Saad, the director of the Beirut Center for Research and Information.

Aware of the challenges, Haytayan and other Watani candidates have adjusted their expectations.

"There will be pressure on the incumbents for them to change their ways," even if few political outsiders get in, Haytayan said.

Sunday's election is the first since the reorganization of Lebanon's electoral map, which consolidated 23 districts into 15 and awarded seats by the share of the vote received, instead of on the principle of winner-takes-all.

Politicians sold it as a more flexible map. But the biggest winner appears to be Hezbollah and its allies, who look set to scoop up some of the seats lost by Prime Minister Saad Hariri's coalition.

For outsiders and independents to win big there would have to be a single electoral district for the whole country, where their influence can't be diluted through gerrymandering, Saad said.

Facing political dynasties that have raised fortunes through political deal-making, the Watani coalition and another list of political outsiders, Sawt al-Nas, or "The Voice of the People," are finding themselves hopelessly outspent in the contest for airtime and votes.

The main news channels, which once showered the 2015 garbage pickup demonstrations with favorable coverage, are now charging candidates tens of thousands of dollars for interviews.

Just registering a candidacy costs $5,300 in fees.

And many voters are expecting to be compensated for their vote by establishment candidates promising $200 and sometimes many times more, Saad said.

"In Lebanon, we have nothing called fair and equal. Our elections are for the rich," said Naamet Badreddine, 37, a candidate for Sawt al-Nas and a former leader of the 2015 demonstrations over the trash crisis.