Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

BEIRUT BULLETIN: With Municipal Elections Scheduled in 1998, Lebanon May See Political and Social Turbulence

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

BEIRUT BULLETIN: With Municipal Elections Scheduled in 1998, Lebanon May See Political and Social Turbulence

Article excerpt

BEIRUT BULLETIN: With Municipal Elections Scheduled in 1998, Lebanon May See Political and Social Turbulence

The year 1998 in Lebanon promises to be a turbulent one, both politically and socially. On the political level, a presidential election is scheduled for summer. Many factors related to the electoral campaign remain unknown, the most important of which are the real intentions of the current president, Elias Hrawi.

Will he seek to extend his already extended mandate? Officially, he has announced his intention to depart at the end of his legal term. But that was also what he announced in 1995. However, the Constitution then was amended to prolong for three more years the presidential mandate, normally set for a non-renewable six-year term.

In 1998 as in 1995, every politician knows that the tone will be set by Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad. If the current high level of tension persists in the Middle East, democracy's prospects are dim in the region. And Lebanon will not be an exception.

This is why another electoral process that is scheduled to take place in April, the municipal elections, is triggering impassioned debate. Local elections have not been held since 1963. Last August, a newly-established grouping, the Meeting for Municipal and Mayoral Elections, formally launched a national campaign to collect signatures on an open-ended petition calling for the organization of local elections. What is substantially new in the campaign is that is aims to mobilize grass-roots support for a demand that has nationwide appeal. Municipal elections are arguably more popular than parliamentary elections and they have aroused widespread local interest. All political forces are actively preparing for the campaign, and the government fears that candidates from the opposition will win the seats in the majority of city councils, because municipal elections are more difficult to control than the parliamentary ones and they are generally a direct reflection of the popular mood.

On the other hand, while Lebanon is pursuing its successful come-back on the international scene -- the summit of the Francophone countries held last November in Hanoi voted for Lebanon to host the summit of the year 2001 -- the economic situation is showing signs of strain.

Economic growth has been declining, from an estimated 9 percent and 6.5 percent in 1994 and 1995, respectively, to 4 percent in 1996 and 3 percent in 1997, according to Bank Audi's Quarterly Economic Report. The slow-down is attributed to the government's tight budgetary policies, which have raised interest rates and thus curbed investment spending. Private investment remains low due to the uncertainty of the regional situation.

Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri has proposed a plan to spend some $1 billion for separate development projects throughout Lebanon. This includes money to pay for the return of the people displaced by the civil war.

Local elections have not been held since 1963.

Given the alarming budget deficit, sluggish growth and the increase of the gross domestic debt, the prime minister's proposal has generated considerable opposition. The money is to be raised partially through higher taxes, perhaps on gasoline or cigarettes, which could have inflationary consequences.

Aside from the financial risks they involve, the Hariri projects are under criticism for their lack of social compassion. Trade union and social demands have become the common denominator of a broad, but in no way united, opposition. …

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