2016 municipal elections: A smokescreen against an acute national political stalemate

Thu, 05/19/2016

With the imminent approach of local municipal elections, tensions between political forces are high, as they maneuver for domination of local councils. These heightened tensions are taking place against the background of the failure of the current government in addressing key problems of ensuring public services and settling the present national political stalemate (namely the carrying out of the presidential and parliamentary elections, the adoption of a more representative electoral law, the management of the displacement problem, etc….).
Hence, growing political and economic failures seem to have prompted the government to divert public attentions form vital political and daily-life issues towards the upcoming municipal elections and to occupy them in narrow local political bickering.
Amongst the acute and protracted daily livelihood challenges facing citizens, are vital issues such as garbage removal, electricity and water supply, protection of public spaces etc…. Attempts by present and previous governments to tackle for example, the garbage management problem are but an indication of blunt failure and lack of vision. Over the years, and in trying to deal with this problem, all previous governments have deliberately and systematically plundered the resources of municipalities and undermined their authorities. However, one can perceive recently the emergence of a shy new move towards restoring some of municipal funds and authorities, particularly in view of mounting popular pressures for resolving the waste crisis and for providing more adequate public services.
A quick historical overview clearly demonstrates how successive governments have succeeded in their efforts to undermine municipalities from the time Sukleen and then its sister company, Sukomi, were contracted in 1994 to collect and process garbage, while expropriating the resources of the independent municipal fund. In diverting those fund allocated to municipalities, various governments resorted to “creative” and borderline unethical legal practices which resulted in the diversion of 40% and then 80% of the entitlements of some 225 municipalities to the advantage of Sukleen and Sukomi. Furthermore, governments have acted to withhold all payments to municipalities to which they were entitled; from total income generated by cellular phone operations estimated at some $1 billion that have accrued over a 10 year period.
It is to be noted that public funds channeled to municipalities are anyway considered modest compared to the needs of local populations and when compared to the country’s GDP (0.4% for Lebanon against 3% for other countries). According to “local.liban” website, the total amount of funds channeled to some 1000 municipalities over the past 17 years was estimated at some LBP 4685 billions (USD 3 billions). For 2015 payments to municipalities amounted in average to a mere $313,000 per municipality, which in fact, is less that the annual budget of some average-sized associations. This is a clear indication of the low level of government financial support to municipalities. Also to be noted that larger municipalities and their affiliated federations in fact enjoy the lion share of these resources (60%), hence raising again serious questions about the capacity of small and medium municipalities to provide their citizens with adequate basic services.
In conclusion, its is generally believed that government’s readiness to carry out the municipal elections was prompted by its intention to distract citizens away from current national political imbroglio, and in order to be seen as responding to popular pressures from civil society organisations. In the same vein, these elections, undoubtedly, will constitute a good opportunity to measure the strength of the various political powers, at a time of shifting political alliances.