During this long holiday weekend in Lebanon, Gebran Bassil has not been idle. With less than two weeks to go before the legislative elections and a few days before the expatriate vote, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement has been campaigning in several regions of the country. While he has used several weapons in the battle, particularly on the Christian scene, against his main rival Samir Geagea, the Maronite leader has at the same time threatened to suspend the participation of his party in the elections.
It all started during the FPM leader’s visit on Saturday to Akkar when clashes between supporters of the party and local residents hostile to him resulted in at least three people getting injured. The army was heavily deployed, while tension was high in the locality of Rahbeh, where the election meeting took place. On Friday evening, our correspondent in North Lebanon, reported that demonstrators blocked the public road in Jouma, at the level of the Rahbeh crossroads, using rubble. They intended to protest against the tour of Gebran Bassil, Akkar being a predominantly Sunni region and often considered hostile to Hezbollah, the Shiite ally of the FPM. Despite these tensions, the latter held a speech before dozens of supporters gathered in the municipal stadium of Rahbeh, around which the army was deployed.
“Is it normal that in times of elections, there is an incident every time we want to tour a region? I ask this question to the Prime Minister, as well as to the Ministers of the Interior and Defense," he said. And threaten: "Today we are in Akkar. Tomorrow we will be in Aley, in the Chouf, in Jezzine, and the day after tomorrow in the Bekaa and then in Beirut. We must be able to move around. ... Otherwise, the government will prove that it is unable to organize the legislative elections. We can, if necessary, suspend our participation.”
'Anticipating a defeat'
This is the first time that the head of the FPM, himself a candidate for one of the two Maronite seats in Batroun, has mentioned the possibility of boycotting the polls, a move which could threaten the holding of the elections.
But, according to Joseph Bahout, director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, “It is not a statement by Gebran Bassil that will cause the postponement of the election.”
Analyst Karim Bitar concurs. “What Gebran Bassil is doing now is trying to anticipate a likely defeat at the end of the elections, especially since some polls show that the Aounist movement may lose 50 percent of the Christian votes he had obtained in 2018,” he says.
However, it appears a suspension of participation in the electoral battle seems to have been seriously put on the table by the FPM.
“If the security situation does not improve, it will be very difficult for us to campaign. We could therefore suspend our participation in the election,” Assaad Dergham, an FMP MP from Akkar, told L’Orient-Le Jour, deploring the fact that no official has denounced the attacks on the party’s leader.
‘Bassil does not care about the intelligence of people’
The leader of the FPM has however for three consecutive days continued his campaign in the runup to the elections that he threatens to boycott.
After Akkar, he went on Sunday to the Chouf-Aley district, the undisputed stronghold of the Progressive Socialist Party of Walid Joumblatt. He also went to Zahle on Monday, and to the Bekaa West area of Rachaya, amid a massive security deployment.
And in his campaigning, he put in his sights his main opponent on the Christian scene, Samir Geagea and his Lebanese Forces, and, by extension, the leader of the Kataeb, Samy Gemayel.
The FPM leader has filed a complaint against these two Christian groups with the election supervisory commission, accusing them of having far exceeded the limits of election spending. Bassil immediately drew a scathing response from Geagea's party, which was indignant that “the one who stole $40 billion in the electricity sector, and who is sanctioned by the United States, accuses the LFs of exceeding the election spending limits … .”
On Monday, Geagea personally invited himself into the game. Speaking to students affiliated with the LF, he repeated his attacks on the head of the FPM, accusing him of wanting to torpedo the diaspora vote.
“Gebran Bassil does not care about the intelligence of the people. They will do the same during the election ...,” he said.
These accusations come at a time when an administrative mess has caused controversy, especially in Australia, where some voters have denounced the geographical distribution of polling stations, sometimes several hours away by road, which could make their access to them difficult or even impossible.
On Sunday, Geagea described the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as “a nest of clientelism and absolute corruption,” a few days after the LF MPs presented a motion of censure against the Foreign Affairs Minister Abdallah Bou Habib, who is close to the Aounist camp, and whom they accuse of breaches of duty regarding the legislative elections. A move that did not succeed in Parliament, due to lack of quorum.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour.