MMFD: Where did it all go wrong?

MMFD: Where did it all go wrong?

Charbel Nahas, leader of MMFD, the guest of the second episode of our special Lebanese legislative podcast "Aux urnes citoyen!" (Credit: L'Orient-Le Jour)

BEIRUT — Opposition party MMFD (Citizens in a State) appeared well positioned to secure several seats in Parliament in the May 15 elections. The party’s secretary general, Charbel Nahas, gained significant popularity on the streets during the Oct. 17, 2019, uprising, where he was often seen holding well-attended discussions. The party also succeeded in getting Jad Ghosn, a high-profile figure with supporters across sectarian lines, to run on its list. However, when the votes were counted, the party ultimately came up empty-handed, leaving many asking just what had gone awry?

“The parliamentary election was not the battlefield, merely one of many,” Nahas told L’Orient Today, in his first media interview since the elections. “If we wanted to win seats, we would have taken different stances, we know what the sects want to hear. This clearly wasn’t our goal, the success is categorized into the political appearance, the appearance in the field, the influence on the plans of others and public support,” Nahas added.

Although public support cannot be measured in votes alone, Nahas said the party expected to get around 120,000 votes. However, MMFD ended up with a total of 70,782 list and preferential votes, including votes for lists in which MMFD participated alongside allies. This amounts to 3.74 percent of all valid votes (i.e. total votes minus the number of invalid votes) in the country. Of those, 8,526 went to Ghosn, a former television journalist and current podcaster who ran in the highly contested Metn district and who is arguably the most high-profile and popular candidate to run with MMFD’s list. Ghosn received the 65th-highest number of preferential votes among candidates in the election.

In the Beirut I district, where party leader Nahas was a candidate, the MMFD list earned 3.23 percent of votes. MMFD’s worst performance was in the North III district, in which the party brought in just 0.80 percent of votes.

Of the 128 winners that entered Parliament, most of them (66) earned fewer preferential votes than Ghosn, including five MPs from Mount Lebanon II (Elias Hankach, Ibrahim Kanaan, Hagop Pakradounian, Elias Bou Saab and Razi al-Hajj).

Overall, of the 80 candidates on MMFD lists, 15 were able to garner over 1,000 preferential votes, placing them in the top 39 percent of candidates in the election. Some 281 candidates out of 719 earned more than 1,000 preferential votes (39.1 percent). Sixteen candidates received fewer than 100 preferential votes, placing them in the bottom 21 percent of candidates.

Nahas received 1,265 preferential votes in total, even though he’s a well-known candidate and veteran politician. After serving as the telecoms minister from 2009 until 2011, he became the labor minister, in a cabinet comprised of 11 Free Patriotic Movement ministers. At the time, the FPM was led by current President Michel Aoun. Nahas resigned from his post in 2012, claiming that his colleagues were preventing any effective improvement in workers' rights. He has been MMFD’s secretary-general since the party’s inception in 2016, and also ran unsuccessfully in the 2018 parliamentary elections.

“People vote for individuals, for people who are familiar,” Nahas said. Aside from Ghosn and Nahas, the only other high-profile candidate on the list was Layal Bou Moussa, a reporter at local news outlet Al-Jadeed, who ran in the North III constituency, but she jumped ship just before the elections and joined Shalamouna, another opposition group.

However, some say that it is in fact Nahas’ visibility, and him being the face of the party, that may have cost MMFD many votes. The former minister is sometimes described as being reactive by his detractors — a prime example of this is found in a video that made the rounds on social media just before the elections, in which he was interviewed by Al-Jadeed’s Rachel Karam. Nahas’ agitated demeanor throughout the interview attracted widespread negative attention at a very inopportune time.

During the interview, when asked about his stance on the question of the return of Syrian refugees, Nahas replied that this is “nonsense” because if they returned, “who would pick up the garbage and [harvest] the olives?” However, many of his supporters defended him, saying that his remark was meant as a commentary on how Lebanese citizens refuse to work jobs considered menial rather than reflective of a negative view of Syrian refugees.

Reacting to his persona being deemed the reason for MMFD’s failure at the polls, Nahas said, “I disagree about the description, it is not a popularity contest, I am not running for Mister Lebanon, it is part of their campaigns against me, they said that we are spies for Hezbollah, and then that we’re spies for the US.”

In a televised Al-Jadeed interview the day after the elections, Jad Ghosn commented on whether Nahas’ lack of popularity had cost MMFD the elections: “Charbel Nahas is an individual, his program is what matters … Charbel Nahas is reactive, he is intense sometimes yes, but the fact that his political choices get questioned because his mustache is big … it’s okay we can trim it.”

While Nahas acknowledges that MMFD’s performance in the polls was not ideal, he still considers it a partial success, predominantly since the party’s media exposure was very limited.

“The young men and women who ran are not known in the public space, so this was a chance for them to have a platform, not just in virtual reality but in the real world, and the link between the virtual reality and the real reality is TV. So considering that we are marginalized and we don’t pay money to the media, it was a good transformation and it led a number of people to get closer to the party and to join us since,” Nahas said.

Halim Shebaya, non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, agreed that MMFD’s limited media appearances played a part in its lack of electoral success. “However, the party’s electoral and communications strategy also need to be reviewed and ameliorated if they want better results,” he said, adding, “They cannot run in future elections successfully without investing in media appearances.”

Rima Majed, assistant professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut, agrees that the party’s overall strategy was not ideal. “I personally think their strategy was wrong but that’s another issue, they ran for elections saying, ‘we don’t care about elections,’ when they could have campaigned for a boycott instead,” Majed said.

Furthermore, Majed believes that the voters responded to one particular candidate rather than the party in general.

“Also, the results show that it was really just Jad rather than MMFD, him as a persona, as a media figure and a very eloquent person who spoke to the voters so I don’t think the party can claim anything,” she adds.

Many claim that one of the defining factors that led to a complete lack of seats was the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons. In the run-up to the elections, many accused MMFD of being a “Trojan Horse” because of its refusal to classify Hezbollah’s weapons as the primary problem in Lebanon, unlike many other parties, both traditional and new, which ran on a platform either supporting or opposing this premise.

“The voting was controlled by this dynamic of ‘Are you with the arms of Hezbollah or against it?’, and to us the arms of Hezbollah are a symptom of the absence of a government,” Nahas said, adding, “I sound unpopular when I say it, but it is the reality.”

Shebaya agrees that MMFD’s stance on Hezbollah’s weapons might have played a part in their lack of electoral wins, especially in certain districts.

“The criticism geared towards them, or the perception was that they have this gray area when it comes to Hezbollah. I think their view was that they were against the Club of Six [the six leaders of Lebanon’s main political parties], which includes Hezbollah. So they did not sideline Hezbollah per se. But they did not get into this kind of sole focus on Hezbollah that other parties were adamant on doing. There was an attempt to have the whole elections be a referendum on Hezbollah,” Shebaya explained.

 Shebaya said that, ultimately, MMFD taking a less confrontational stance on Hezbollah’s weapons may potentially have been to the party’s advantage in some districts, as it might have allowed them to win supporters from those who were previously pro-Amal Movement and Hezbollah, those who were perhaps looking for a new party and disgruntled by the economic crisis.

“But from the perspective of the others who will want them to just say ‘Hezbollah is the only problem in Lebanon,' they did not go that route. They've clarified their position but seemingly not enough. It's been over-debated I feel. But I think it is unfair to say that they are pro-Hezbollah. I saw them being attacked by the media close to Hezbollah,” Shebaya notes.

When, just before the elections, MMFD hung banners in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, which criticized Hezbollah for including corrupt banker Marwan Kheireddine on its South Lebanon III list, the move was heavily criticized by Hezbollah and Amal supporters and the banners were torn down.

Some have also attributed MMFD’s inability to translate their popularity into seats to their perceived elitism, which may have prevented them from connecting with the average voter.

“There is no doubt that there is a perception that they are elitist,” Shebaya said.

Shebaya believes this perception is fed by the idea that in 2022, a lot of the voters for the non-traditional parties are mostly from the younger generations, “say from 21 to 40,” and there has been a shift in the way politics is practiced with the rise of the use of Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and other social media platforms.

“People are looking for quick messages, they're looking for a good speaker in a short video, someone who's good at branding their image,” Shebaya said. “Nowadays, it's less about substance, and more about form.

Conversely, Shebaya said, MMFD is known for its long, prosaic statements that require significant concentration to absorb and digest — something he has heard people specifically refer to as a detrimental characteristic of the group.

“It’s a two-edged sword. On the one hand, they have a strong grasp on many of the issues, especially the economic programs, and they offer clear suggestions with substance, but the way they present them is often geared towards people who will want to make an effort to dive into the minutiae, it's not always easy to follow what they're saying. More effort is needed to reach a wider segment of the population, and this requires an adaptation of their communications strategy,” Shebaya said.

One of the factors that did not play a part in MMFD’s inability to win any seats, which did negatively affect many other parties and candidates, is Lebanon’s dizzyingly complicated electoral law.

The result in Mount Lebanon II caused some Ghosn supporters to argue that the electoral law disfavors lists like those of MMFD. While a proper experiment as to what the results would be if Lebanon elected the top preferential vote getters in each district is impossible because parties would have campaigned differently under a different system, sorting current results by preferential vote count would have sent list allies Hicham Hayek (South II) and Wafic Rihan (South III) to Parliament, while retaining “Together For Change” opposition candidates Elias Jaradeh and Firas Hamdan’s unprecedented South III seats as well. Ghosn would be the only MMFD candidate elected in this hypothetical.

Ghosn believes that MMFD’s political plan was solid and did not fail in all districts to gather votes.

“It failed in most districts, but I received a lot of votes, as we did in South Lebanon III, where we had a candidate. It could be that some people were better communicators than others in some districts; therefore, it is not the political approach that was wrong,” he said in the aforementioned interview.

But, moving forward, how do MMFD’s supporters view the party?

While a lot of unwavering support was shown for the party in the aftermath of the parliamentary elections, underlined by overwhelming collective praise for Ghosn in particular, some were left with a bitter aftertaste.

A strong supporter of the party who voted for it in the Sour district and agreed to speak to L’Orient Today on condition of anonymity, was very clear about who he blames for the party’s failure to deliver at the polls.

“I am with MMFD’s choices, I am with their principles, they are realistic, they know what they are talking about in a scientific way, I respect them in their planning and their economic and social knowledge,” he said. “What I am against is Charbel Nahas’ approach, which is aggressive, doesn’t accept others, is condescending, doesn’t meet people in the middle ground, because sometimes you might have a point, but the other person might have a good point as well, so you have to meet in the middle.”

The voter from Sour also feels that, aside from what he described as Nahas’ “aggressive approach,” unfortunate choices were made in the run-up to the elections in terms of timing and technical maneuvers.

“Nahas did not want to compete in the elections six months prior to it, deciding to participate two months before when he forced his party onto lists across the districts and forced his agenda on them [the lists] and placed them under his party’s [label], which scattered the opposition,” he said. The voter also alleges that Nahas chose his candidates indiscriminately in order to field candidates across the country that would talk about his political plan. “The election should not be managed this way because each district has its own dynamics and people who are influential,” the voter added.

Looking forward, Nahas maintains that being realistic about the situation the country is in, and continuing to provide viable solutions to the economic crisis in particular, is more important than debating the details of a failed campaign that even if successful would have ultimately amounted to a relatively small win.

“We are not here to say that if we got three or five seats it’s great, no the country is collapsing, I agree that this might sound ugly, but the reality is very ugly,” he said.

Additional reporting by Richard Salame

BEIRUT — Opposition party MMFD (Citizens in a State) appeared well positioned to secure several seats in Parliament in the May 15 elections. The party’s secretary general, Charbel Nahas, gained significant popularity on the streets during the Oct. 17, 2019, uprising, where he was often seen holding well-attended discussions. The party also succeeded in getting Jad Ghosn, a high-profile...