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A Country on Hold: The Repeated Postponement of Lebanon’s Municipal Elections

Lebanon's municipal elections have been postponed twice in a row, and are likely to be postponed yet again on April 25. This delay will significantly weaken local democracy and governance even further, something the country cannot afford.

Lebanon is scheduled to hold municipal elections before May 31, when the mandates for over 1,000 municipalities and 3,000 mukhtars—elected neighborhood or village-level representatives—expire. However, the usual political maneuvers aiming for a postponement are already underway with Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri calling for a parliamentary session set for April 25 to discuss a third consecutive extension of the municipal mandate. 

Lebanon is already suffering from a crippling political vacuum: it hasn’t had a president since October 2022 and has been run by a caretaker government since May 2022. Another delay in municipal elections would significantly weaken local democracy and governance. It would erode what little remains of public trust, disrupt service delivery, and impair democratic accountability while increasing central government control, thus diminishing municipal autonomy. These elections are critical for the effective operation of local administrations, especially given the ongoing challenges of a severe financial crisis, the collapse of the central government, the refugee crisis, and the ongoing Israeli attacks on Lebanon. The urgency of these elections is underscored by the fact that about 134 out of 1,064 municipalities have already been dissolved—mainly due to the death or resignation of at least half their members—and many others are effectively dysfunctional due to internal conflicts or lack of municipal funds.

Postponed, for a third time? 

These elections were already deferred in 2022 and again in 2023 when parliament passed a year-long extension citing financial reasons. Critics, however, argued that Lebanon could use support from the International Monetary Fund to organize the polls.

Israel’s attacks on South Lebanon and its ongoing tit-for-tat with Hezbollah have created a prime opportunity for political factions to advocate for a third postponement as it is unsafe for the elections to take place in the targeted areas and possibly beyond them.

The urgency of these elections is underscored by the fact that about 134 out of 1,064 municipalities have already been dissolved…and many others are effectively dysfunctional due to internal conflicts or lack of municipal funds

Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said his ministry is ready to organize the upcoming polls. He has already issued the call for elections in Mount Lebanon to be held on May 12 and in North Lebanon and Akkar on May 19. He is expected to call for elections in the remaining governorates, Beirut, and all of the South, to be held on May 26. The minister stated that if the security situation in the South and Nabatieh governorates does not permit holding them, they would be postponed for just these areas two days before election day.

Although the 2024 budget allocated some $10 million for the elections, the ministry still has to overcome serious challenges to organize them on time: recruitment and training of some 5,000 polling staff (many of whom reside in South Lebanon), the identification of polling centers, the mobilization and deployment of security forces, the procurement of electoral materials, and most importantly the lack of political will to hold the polls.

Since October 2023, the armed confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel has displaced more than 90,000 people from their villages in the south. Additionally, some southern villages have sustained devastating damage, with complete neighborhoods flattened by strikes. The current state of the infrastructure previously used for electoral purposes is yet to be assessed. Israeli attacks have also not been limited to the south, but extended to the southern suburbs of Beirut, Saida, Northern Bekaa, and West Bekaa. A drone carrying a missile also malfunctioned and dropped over Keserwan in Mount Lebanon, further to the north.

The interior ministry said elections will be postponed in these areas if security conditions remain unfavorable. However, the proposal of holding elections in all the other governorates was met with opposition from the two main Shiite parties in Lebanon, Hezbollah and Amal. While they expressed their readiness for the polls, they also raised “concerns about the feasibility of holding elections while certain areas are under daily bombardment by Israel, with constant overflights by military aircraft and drones.” This plan has rekindled long-standing grievances, leading to accusations that organizing elections nationwide while excluding the South and Nabatieh governorates signals federalist ambitions.

Partial elections?

Civil society groups, independent MPs, and opposition parties such as Kataeb and Lebanese Forces have voiced their concerns and disapproval of another election delay. Their objections, however, are unlikely to halt the postponement, given that Lebanon’s Constitutional Council had rejected legal challenges to previous election delays. 

Civil society groups have been vocally advocating for the organization of these polls and have proposed setting up megacenters to respond to the electoral needs of internally displaced citizens in the south by allowing them to vote away from their villages. The establishment of megacenters has been a recurrent demand, which civil society argues would decrease voter intimidation and increase participation. However, establishing megacenters barely a few weeks before the elections is a far-fetched solution since it requires a pre-registration period and extensive logistical preparations, which should have been thought of and executed a while ago. 

The other proposed solution is to hold the polls in non-impacted areas while postponing them in affected regions. This is based on two precedents in 1992 and 1998 when parliamentary and municipal elections were held across the country except for the southern villages under Israeli occupation. This argument falls short considering the active conflict taking place and Israel’s reliance on advanced technology to track and target Hezbollah operatives across the country. Holding these polls could have political repercussions on Hezbollah if the turnout in its strongholds is low or the opposition to its lists is stronger than expected. The active conflict and the tracking of Hezbollah operatives beyond the areas near the border will also hinder its capacity to campaign and mobilize supporters properly. 

Political reasoning for the delays

Municipal elections have always been a nightmare for political forces due to the intricacies of family dynamics, local political figures, and political alliances. Political forces have tried to use these elections to solidify their power. These factors, in addition to recurrent political crises, have led to the extension of the mandate of municipalities from 1969 until 1998—six years before the start of the civil war in 1975 and eight after it ended. It has been argued since then that the municipal law needs to be reformed, be it for the structure and mandate of municipalities as well as how they are elected, something that we have yet to see.

Municipal elections have always been a nightmare for political forces due to the intricacies of family dynamics, local political figures, and political alliances

Municipal elections have been an opportunity for change groups to challenge traditional parties. In 2016, Beirut Madinati, a local political movement launched right before the elections, managed to force all traditional parties to ally together and rally support against it to ensure no new players reached the municipal council. Beirut Madinati garnered some 40 percent of the votes but failed to secure seats due to the nature of the majority-based electoral system. The campaign inspired a broader movement of independent lists running for municipal elections against lists backed by traditional parties. 

The 2016 municipal experience has also contributed to more organized efforts to challenge traditional parties during the 2018 and 2022 parliamentary polls, with 13 MPs from outside the establishment getting elected in 2022. Contesting the grip of traditional political parties might further grow as the financial crisis, the Beirut explosion, and the general deterioration of socio-economic and political environments draw more unsatisfied voters away from traditional parties.

The threat of losing the 50-50 balance between Christians and Muslims in the municipal board of Beirut has also been raised as an underlying reason for postponing elections. Since 1998, the Future Movement, Beirut’s biggest political force that is predominantly Sunni, had ensured the sensitive balance between Christians and Muslims was respected when composing the winning list. However, the status quo has been threatened after former prime minister Saad Hariri, the party’s leader, deactivated the party in early 2022 right before parliamentary elections. This has led the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanon’s two largest Christian parties, to demand changing how the Beirut Municipal Board is elected or even advocating the split of the municipality into two—east with mostly Christian voters and west with mostly Muslim ones.

The third postponement: A silver lining

Amidst Lebanon’s many crises, robust, responsive local governance is more crucial than ever. Ensuring timely elections is imperative to uphold local governance standards, restore confidence in democratic processes, and support municipalities in their pivotal role of driving sustainable development during these turbulent times.

However, this moment of crisis also presents a strategic opportunity. With a third and imminent postponement on the horizon, local civil society, opposition parties, and international stakeholders have a unique chance to work together to advocate for comprehensive reforms of the local governance system. These reforms should include a reevaluation of the structure and mandate of municipalities to advance greater administrative and fiscal decentralization. Coupled with this, the election law overseeing municipal elections should undergo a thorough review. Municipal electoral reform must include adopting a new electoral system designed to foster more inclusive representation, implement a women’s quota, establish a campaign finance framework, and expand the mandate of the Supervisory Committee for Elections to oversee municipal campaigns. Immediate steps must also include preparing for the establishment of megacenters for the upcoming municipal elections and the 2026 parliamentary ones, ensuring all citizens can participate safely and effectively in their democratic right to vote.

Maroun Sfeir is a governance and elections specialist who has managed the implementation of projects focused on electoral assistance, election observation, electoral and political assessments, advocacy, and civic education, with several organizations including the United Nations Development Program, the European Union, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and the National Democratic Institute.


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