Editorial: Early elections? Careful what you wish for...

Eleven thousand dollars. It’s a lot of money. Imagine trying to raise $11,000, not just once, but every single day. That’s what a Lebanese political party would have to do from now until Election Day to have a $10 million war chest to spend and be able to truly compete with the corrupt, foreign-funded, kleptocratic parties of the political establishment.

Eleven thousand dollars per day, every single day ... and that’s if the election holds in 2022 as scheduled. For the revolutionaries demanding early elections in three months? Try over $100,000 per day. No days off, no excuses.

As much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, as a political strategist who advises parties and candidates around the world to help them win elections, I am often placed in this position. But because I care for the patient, my diagnosis remains: Early elections are a truly terrible idea if the goal is to change the corrupt establishment.

Aside from the obvious constraint of financial resources just discussed, here are three reasons why it’s better to wait in order to win.

First of all, there is the issue of passion. I always tell my clients, “We think we are in the business of policy and governance, but we are not: We are in the business of emotion.” The street right now is full of passion and emotion, and it’s a beautiful thing to observe: the nationwide scope of the movement, the nonsectarian ethos, the eager participation of hundreds of thousands of people.

But when election time comes, the squares will empty and those who want change have to go home and begin campaigning for it. Believe me: Passions fade. Maybe not for the hipsters of Badaro and Mar Mikhael, but surely for the ordinary people who have been filling the streets. They will return to their villages and their families and their communities, where the traditional sectarian mentality still abounds. Cracks on the wall of national consensus and nonsectarian togetherness will begin to appear. We already started to witness this after the first few days of the protests: The Aoun/Geagea rivalry floated right to the surface, as one very sad example. People tend to retreat to the mentality that has emotionally conditioned them since birth. It’s very hard to overcome this, and it’s foolish to deny it, even if it’s painful to admit.

Secondly, an election is not a referendum. When people go and vote, they will not simply choose between two boxes: “Continue being abused and humiliated by corrupt kleptocrats” or “Hela Ho.” I wish it were that easy. But an election is a choice between party lists, between individuals. And history has shown that when it comes to public opinion, the whole is actually much less than the sum of its parts. As an example, the approval rating of the U.S. Congress rarely exceeds 20 percent. It’s a hated institution - perceived as ineffective, wasteful, even stupid. Yet, in any given American congressional election, 80-90 percent of incumbents are re-elected.

This may seem incongruous, but it’s true. And to a lesser extent, it will be true in Lebanon as well, because it is much easier to hate an institution than an individual. Don’t be fooled, even the most odious regimes include people who behave honorably from time to time. Individuals can be forgiven, especially if they have redeeming qualities. For example, some Lebanese voters will return to their districts and begin to think: “I’m sick of Gebran Bassil but Nicolas Sehnaoui is so down-to-earth and a gentleman,” or “I never liked the Lebanese Forces but they did quit the government first and Georges Adwan is a good negotiator,” or “Future has been a failure but Saad Hariri put his country first when he listened to the demands of the street,” or “Hezbollah has abused our trust but Hussein Hajj Hasan is an agricultural expert who can help us.”

Those politicians, and many more like them, possess personal attributes that endear them to people. They have built a reservoir of trust over time that has not been fully drained, despite the colors of their party flags. Voters will not completely abandon them, no matter how passionate the protests.

Finally, the question of competence and of organization on the part of those who wish to defeat the establishment. Does anyone honestly believe that the people clamoring for change in a deliberately leaderless movement will somehow agree on a unified list of candidates in time for early elections? It’s likely that most of the precious time available in an early elections scenario would be spent in ego contests in closed meetings arguing about who should lead instead of campaigning to voters. And if they can’t agree, multiple lists of anti-establishment forces will simply dilute the impact, keeping them below the threshold in each district and putting the kleptocrats back in power.

I fear that early elections at this stage would produce little more than 6 or 7 additional Paula Yacoubians, a curiosity making noise in opposition. It’s not the fundamental political shift that the protesters demand and that Lebanon deserves. In fact, if the establishment were not so incompetent, they’d serve their own interests by conceding to the demand for early elections.

The best strategy is to keep pressure on the street to ensure a worthy technocratic government, or at least one that does not induce vomiting. Keep the pressure to ensure that this interim government makes meaningful reforms, and quickly. But most importantly, those who see themselves as leading candidates and who are willing to do the substantial work necessary to beat the establishment should get organized starting now. Don’t wait for a new Lebanese electoral law or complete consensus that will never come: Form parties and get to work. Start raising money. Raise enough money to be able to advertise and hire qualified staff as the next 2 1/2 years pass so that you are not relying on volunteers. (The $10 million figure cited earlier is a reasonable - maybe even a conservative - estimate. Anyone planning on changing Lebanon on the basis of volunteer effort alone should not aim higher than organizing the distribution of water bottles at demonstrations. Please.)

Two-and-a-half years is actually a short period of time for emerging leaders to get organized, raise enough money, and run a well-planned strategic campaign that can finally deliver a big enough blow to the corrupt Lebanese political establishment that will enable systemic change. To expect this to happen in less than six months is folly. If the protesters want to win, they must channel the passion on the street today into a sustained and disciplined effort with normally scheduled 2022 elections as their target.