Beirut I, the field of solo battles?

Vagueness still surrounds this constituency where how the Sunni electorate will vote remains the biggest unknown after the withdrawal of the Future Movement

Beirut I, the field of solo battles?

A street in Achrafieh, Beirut on election day in 2018. (Credit: Hassan Assal/File Photo)

In Beirut I, each party is preparing to go it alone in the legislative elections scheduled to take place in less than three months. This is the impression given by the panorama that is beginning to take shape in this constituency where the main Christian parties are present, as well as civil society groups and personalities from traditional families.

In this constituency, which includes Ashrafieh, Rmeil, Saifi and Medawar, eight seats are being contested: three Armenian-Orthodox, one Armenian-Catholic, one Maronite, one Greek-Orthodox, one Greek-Catholic and one minority.

Here, as in many other regions, all eyes will be on the Free Patriotic Movement, which is likely to suffer serious losses: firstly because Beirut was the epicenter of the 2019 protest movement, which was mainly directed against the presidency, held by FPM founder Michel Aoun, and its camp, notably FPM leader and Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, and, secondly, because the Christian neighborhoods of the capital were hit hard by the deadly Aug. 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion, which was caused by the careless storage of huge quantities of ammonium nitrate in a port warehouse.

Aoun had been informed three weeks earlier of the presence of the ammonium nitrate at the port, but did not act, arguing that “it was already too late.” This is one of the reasons for the 40 percent fall in the FPM’s popularity, according to the latest polls,” said a Beirut political personality who requested anonymity.

Another major obstacle that the FPM will have to overcome is the absence of its key Sunni ally in the previous elections, Saad Hariri.

After the failure of the presidential compromise, relations between the two parties had completely broken down long before the Future Movement leader announced his withdrawal from the political arena. It is therefore almost impossible to expect a repeat of the 2018 scenario in this region, where the Armenian and Sunni electorates were decisive.

Last time around, the list born of the tripartite FPM-Hariri-Tashnag alliance garnered 18,373 votes and succeeded in electing four MPs: Nicolas Sehanoui (FPM) in the Greek-Catholic seat (4,788 votes); Hagop Terzian (3,451 votes) and Alexandre Matossian (2,376 votes) from Tashnag in the two Armenian-Orthodox seats; and Antoine Pano (FPM) in the minorities seat (539 votes).

“The withdrawal of Saad Hariri will certainly reduce the electoral coefficient (due to the decrease in the number of voters),” admits Sayed Younes, head of the Aounist electoral machine, when asked by L'Orient-Le Jour.

However, he downplays the potential impact of this absence, saying that the Sunni contribution to the list sponsored by his party in 2018 “was not very high.” According to Younes, “the Sunni votes were scattered among the lists that were competing.”

Hagop Pakradounian, secretary general of Tashnag, agrees. “The block of Haririan votes, numbering 800, was given to our list that included the candidate under the Armenian Henchak party, Sebouh Kalpakian,” said the MP from Metn, adding that the rest was distributed among all the lists present.

“It is obvious that the withdrawal of Mr. Hariri will cause the dispersion of the votes of the supporters of the Future Movement, if they were to go to the polls,” Pakradounian added.

Regarding the alliances that his party intends to build in the upcoming battle, Pakradounian assures that no decision has been taken yet. “We continue to make our calculations in search of the largest number of Armenian seats,” he said.

For his part, Younes confirms that the FPM is currently in negotiations with Tashnag. However, it is also possible that the two parties will present candidates on separate lists. “What is certain for the moment is that Nicolas Sehnaoui will again be our candidate in Beirut I,” Younes said.

Antoine Pano, however, is no longer running. His withdrawal is interpreted as a will of the Aounists to anticipate a possible loss that it could suffer during the election. But Younes says that the FPM “will form a complete list in Beirut I.”

LF-Antoun Sehnaoui: the divorce

The same ambition is felt by the Lebanese Forces. Party leader Samir Geagea has put forward a first pawn in this constituency: Ghassan Hasbani, a former deputy prime minister, will be a candidate for the Greek Orthodox seat, currently occupied by Imad Wakim.

“We are currently in contact with new figures who share our vision and who want to help those who have suffered damage as a result of the tragedy in the port,” Hasbani told L’Orient-Le Jour.

If the LF is looking for “new figures,” it is because for them too a return to the configuration of May 2018 seems for the moment excluded.

In 2018, Geagea’s party managed to overcome its differences with the Kataeb, forming a joint list to which had joined the former minister Michel Pharaon and the businessman and banker Antoun Sehnaoui, represented by Jean Talouzian. This list attracted 16,772 voters and won three seats: an Armenian-Catholic, Talouzian (4,166 preferential votes), Nadim Gemayel (Maronite, Kataeb, 4,096 votes) and Imad Wakim (3,936 votes).

For the battle of 2022, other calculations are being made. Thus, a personality who follows the file closely explains the electoral divorce between Pharaon and the Sehnaoui-Talouzian tandem. “No alliance should take place between Jean Talouzian and the FL,” they added, recalling that the latter had slammed the door on the LF parliamentary group shortly after the 2018 legislative elections.

On the other hand, this source indicates that the Sehnaoui list could include Nadim Gemayel.

Nadim Gemayel

However, when asked by L’Orient-Le Jour, Gemayel simply said his party “will weave alliances that are in line with our political and national convictions.”

But the Kataeb, as we know, is officially against any alliance with the LF.

“Our position is clear this time, especially since the protest movement has profoundly changed the situation,” said Ralph Sahyoun, head of the elections department within the party, adding that everyone will comply with this decision. This means the decision would also extend to Nadim Gemayel.

This divorce between the various forces of the former March 14 alliance irritates Michel Pharaon, who has still not decided the question of his candidacy.

The former minister, who consulted with Nadim Gemayel two weeks ago, is slowly making his calculations, especially after the withdrawal of Hariri, knowing that he can benefit from a significant share of the Sunni electorate. “I am in contact with the various political forces present in the city, with the exception of the FPM,” he said, lamenting the fact that “it is electoral interests and calculations that take precedence at the expense of efforts to unify the sovereignist political forces.”

Civil society groups, for their part, are tuning their violins in this constituency where they made a breakthrough in 2018, leading to Paula Yaacoubian’s election to the legislature (2,500 votes). The MP, who intends to run again under the “Watani” alliance, is concocting a list that already includes Ziad Abi Chaker (Maronite), Tarek Ammar (Greek-Orthodox), Nelly Der Ghazarian (Armenian-Orthodox) and Nada Sehnaoui (Greek-Catholic).

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. 

In Beirut I, each party is preparing to go it alone in the legislative elections scheduled to take place in less than three months. This is the impression given by the panorama that is beginning to take shape in this constituency where the main Christian parties are present, as well as civil society groups and personalities from traditional families.In this constituency, which includes Ashrafieh,...