On May 8, Lebanon held the first of four rounds of municipal elections. The only elections since 2010, this round of voting represents Lebanese citizens’ first opportunity to exercise their political voice since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, ensuing influx of refugees and popular protests against a paralyzing trash crisis. Lebanon’s politicians have repeatedly postponed the parliamentary elections originally scheduled for June 2013 and the country has been without a president since May 2014. Amid this political impasse at the national level, municipal elections have become the last remaining institutional mechanism for generating a modicum of political accountability. Beyond activists’ efforts to ensure the funding of these elections, protesters and members of civil society have called for greater decentralization and fiscal resources for municipal councils.
This is especially relevant as municipalities have become the de facto front line in managing both the trash crisis and the dire refugee situation – receiving significant assistance from international donors. In this political context, the ongoing municipal elections have taken on additional symbolic and practical importance. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the capital, where Beirut Madinati (Arabic for “Beirut, My city”), a list of independent technocrats and activists, proposed a programmatic agenda and made the capital city’s municipal elections competitive for the first time in Lebanon’s post-war history.
During the Lebanese civil war, municipal councils lost much of their influence. Even though the war ended in 1991, new elections were not held until 1998. Since then, municipal elections proceed at regular six-year intervals, with elections taking place in 2004, 2010 and now 2016. A sizable portion of municipal revenue comes directly from the national-level Independent Municipal Fund (IMF). The disbursement of funds is officially based on population size, but a lack of transparency plagues the distribution process. In 2009, an average 36 percent of municipal revenues came through the Independent Municipal Fund. Another 16 percent came from surtaxes collected from water and telephone authorities on behalf of the municipalities. And the remaining 48 percent came through direct revenue, mostly from real estate and property taxes. A 1977 law codified relatively far-reaching local powers, stating that any “work having a public character or utility” is within municipal jurisdiction.