The lukewarm embrace of conservativism: Euro 2009 vs. Lebanon 2009

June 10, 2009

What a week for far-right-wingers.

As the exit polls of the Lebanese elections were coming through on Sunday evening, displaying unexpected success for the incumbent March 14 block, preliminary figures from the European elections indicated major gains for centre right and even far-right parties across the continent.

Obviously, not all the members of Lebanon’s March 14 group are right-wing: the presence of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party and the Democratic Left add a semblance of leftism to the coalition. However, they have allied themselves alongside the decidedly right-wing parties of the Lebanese Forces and the Kata’ib (the founder of the latter, Pierre Gemeyal, was inspired by the impressive display of strength and authority exhibited by the Blackshirts of Mussolini’s Italy). The Kata’ib won 5 seats in this year’s election, up from 2 in 2005. (For a full breakdown of the results of Lebanon’s 2009 parliamentary elecions, see PDF link here)

Notwithstanding, the right-wing/left-wing dichotomy is, perhaps, not as much of a useful lens for analysis in Lebanon as it is in Europe. Right-wing rhetoric in Europe is usually associated with an exacerbated focus on identity politics, whether in terms of nationalism of shaky claims to ethnic purity or authenticity. In Lebanon, the confines of confessionalism dictate that all parties across the political spectrum are equally bogged down in the murky swamps of identity politics.

Arguably, the fact that parties with such diverse political platforms can run together as a ‘coalition’ displays the vaccuousness of the Lebanese block voting system. Another example would be the precarious alliance in the March 8th block between the two Shi’a parties, Hizbullah and Amal, with their pronounced Islamist tendencies, and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). It was no secret that the leaders of the latter two parties, Nabih Berri and Michel Aoun, were not even on speaking terms for much of the pre-election period.

The proverbial elephant in the room remains that Lebanese politics is more about ontology than political policy: Lebanese vote according to what they feel they are, as opposed to who best represents their interests at any given moment.
This is reflected in that the vast majority of Lebanese political parties, with the notable exception of Hizbullah, do not have political programmes or policies. People in Lebanon vote according to sect, longstanding family association, or even campaign slogan, but not concrete policies. It was only after the announcement on Monday of the election results, March 14 said that it was now time to work on their political programme, which would resonate amongst some as a slightly upside-down way of conceiving of the notion of democratic representation and choice.

Admittedly, and as Sunny Hundal has usefully reminded us, the recent success of far-right parties in Europe, like the British National Party, is not due to the identity aspects of their message. Rather, it seems that they have tapped into a policy lacunae left by mainstream parties, in that they address concrete issues that other parties have been hesitant to, namely immigration and employment.

However, the linking of these two themes means that people come to conceive of the employment as inextricably linked with immigration, instead of the lack of corporate responsibility which has led to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs since the beginning of the financial crisis. As opposed to the systematic disempowerment that has been the internationally-widespread result of unregulated, rampant, globalized capitalism, the creation of a rhetorical link between unemployment and immigration by far-right parties has meant that people begin to view their economic hardships in xenophobic tropes.

Similarly, the March 14 forces used a series of divisive references in their election campaigning, both sectarian and xenophobic. One massive March 14 billboard near Sassine Square displayed a defaced FPM billboard with it’s slogan of “Change” scrawled over with a message saying that to vote for the FPM was effectively to vote for Syria. Another billboard for the Lebanese forces read: “You didn’t give them your land, don’t give them your vote” (a referenece to the lands of the inhabitants of southern Lebanon that was occupied by the Israelis from 1982 until 2005). Essentially, the campaigning of March 14 was much more to do with establishing criteria for an “US vs. Them” encounter, a “Clash of Identities” if you will than for rallying support in more positive ways.

(Ok, so March 8th campaigns weren’t that great either. Yeah, the FPM tried to tap into the “Obama effect” by adopting the slogan “Change”. Yet, though not overtly confrontational, their billboards spouting the shallow and sexist slogans of “Sois belle et vote” and “Je vote Orange” are problematic in their own right. See, here, here and here)

This is where an overlap can be discerned in the series of elections that took place on Sunday in different countries. One resounding comparison that can be made between the messages of the victorious March 14 block and right-wing European parties is the extent to which the tactics of fear are deployed to sway voters. Of course, there are deep geo-political discrepancies between Lebanon and Europe (20 years of civil war and occupation immediately spring to mind). However, though the nature of the problems faced by citizens in their respective countries differs, it is the success with which ideological fears are successfully constructed and exacerbated which entices populations to slip into the lukewarm embrace of extreme conservativism.


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