Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Enjoying the Charles and Michel mud fight

Some weeks ago I made a decision that since I was not going to derive deep meaning from the parliamentary election campaign, the least I could do was amuse myself while following its twists and turns. That’s when I decided to buy and read Ad-Diyar on a daily basis.

To “read” the newspaper may be putting things rather ambitiously, as that would presume someone actually made an effort to write the articles. Once you’ve seen the main headline, not much more is demanded than to scan the barely literate text underneath it. You might glance at photographs of owner Charles Ayoub himself in the newspaper, after all he is a candidate in Kesrouan, though precisely why he will frequently print three of them on the same page is unclear.

On Monday morning, Ad-Diyar seemed to have hit the bottom when the newspaper’s headline responded to what Michel Aoun had said in an interview on Sunday evening. Ayoub called Aoun a “thief” (which is what Aoun had called Ayoub), then concluded with this inimitable line: “Your Madness for Power Decapitated Lebanon to the Extent that You Compared Yourself to Jesus Christ, Though You Are Judas”.

Charles Ayoub is not likely to have an award for journalistic excellence named after him. Many people groaned at the crude exchange between him and Aoun; however this was as close as we were going to get to the truth about an election process wrapped in concentric layers of hypocrisy and smugness. With candidates, virtually all candidates, adopting the pose of regal statesmen, Ayoub let the cat out of the bag, showing that behind that fa├žade it was about vulgarity, as big boys and girls fight over small seats. What a delicious image, that of Aoun vainly trying to project himself as a reformer above the political fray, while Ayoub dragged him and his candidates down into the sludge pit.

That’s not to say that the June elections are without meaning, or that the focus on slogans belies the import of the battle. The vote will determine what Lebanon will be like in the coming years, and given what is at stake in the country today, whether the gains of the Independence Intifada of 2005 are reversed. However, the import of the battle does not make the emptiness of the slogans less glaring, or the grandiosity of the candidates easier to stomach.

Is there any way for the Lebanese to improve the quality of their election campaigns? A few years ago, as a presidential election loomed, the lawyer Chibli Mallat decided to stand for the post and had the luminous idea of exposing his program to the public. There was much disbelief in reaction to this, and Mallat’s campaign was ultimately interrupted by the instability in Lebanon and his departure from the country. But the fact was that those who scoffed really only made fun of themselves, because they admitted that any candidate who went to the trouble of taking them seriously had to be an eccentric.

Isn’t it far more eccentric that many of our future parliamentarians are being shuffled around like cards this pre-election period, one minute in a list, one minute out, and that we accept this without question? Maybe we deserve blunt instruments like Ayoub, because in the end we consent to an electoral system where, aside from a few leaders, those speaking in our name are time and again nonentities whose political choices we know little about, and that we don’t need to know about because they are unlikely to take independent decisions once in parliament.

Until the Lebanese protest against the way they are made to vote, we will all have to manage with a legislature top-heavy with people having nothing to say. Some may cringe at the mediocrity of political debate in the country. But we only get what we deserve, which is why Ad-Diyar remains my morning reading and Charles Ayoub my Bob Woodward, though I admit that this thought does make me slightly ill.

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