Flying insults, throwing water, swinging chairs — spectacles more befitting a wrestling match or an episode of Jerry Springer than a political talk show.
While arguably no longer a novelty, the scene that unfolded live in front of thousands of viewers on a Lebanese television channel is symptomatic of the level of discourse (or lack of it) between politicians, not only in Lebanon but across the region as well. Indeed, a similar fistfight erupted on Jordanian television in the same week over opposing views regarding the situation in Syria.
In developed countries around the world, such behavior would almost certainly have ended their careers or relegated them to secondary roles. The fact that the two feuding Lebanese politicians were lauded (or at least not condemned) by many of their peers and a significant segment of the population shows how far the country is from reaching political maturity. It is time to redefine the attitude and conduct expected from elected officials and reassess the relationship between elected officials and their constituents.
Undoubtedly, scuffles breaking out in Parliament or between politicians are not limited to our part of the world. However, they do reflect the lack of substance and content in the discourse of our leaders, who try to overcome or compensate for shortcomings by appealing to the primal instincts, emotions and insecurities of their audience, playing on religious, ethnic or socio-cultural sensitivities, erupting in fits of anger as a means of projecting strength and establishing presence.
The fact that politicians who remain poised and rational in communicating with their public are often perceived or portrayed as weak or unfitting for leadership is yet another testament to our skewed understanding of the role of a political figurehead, and the entrenched culture of revering the mighty but not necessarily the righteous.
Furthermore, the often patronizing approach and tone of voice used by politicians in the region in communicating with the public is indicative of how broken our system is. There is a need for a complete overhaul in mentalities if we are to become a state where power is truly in the hands of the people.
Examples abound of the disequilibrium in the relationship between citizens and elected officials, becoming similar to that of employer/employee or even master/slave. While this comparison might seem particularly harsh, it remains true when considering that politicians seldom feel the need for transparency, making decisions and taking stands on matters without reverting back to their constituents or sharing relevant information with them, while expecting them to follow blindly.
Prior to the year-end holidays, members of the Lebanese government publicly stated that they were offering citizens a “gift” in the form of an increase in the minimum wage. Though intended as a humorous analogy, this choice of words reflects the condescending attitude of politicians vis-à-vis their electorate, whereby they depict what is arguably an earned right as an act of charity or a favor for which they expect appreciation and applause.
Accepting the norm
Yet the root of the problem lies elsewhere. It is the lack of understanding of the concepts of accountability and citizenship that encourage and perpetuate such a prevailing culture, in which politicians sometimes act God-like and expect unwavering loyalty and support, often offering nothing in return except a false sense of security or the occasional monetary or material reward.
But the state in which we find ourselves cannot only be attributed to the mindset or behavior of politicians, as we citizens are equally at fault, content with the status quo and refusing to actively work to change the equation, whether out of despair or because of personal interests.
Breaking what has become the norm requires establishing a new social contract that clearly defines the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the role and duties of elected officials.
While a long overdue process, achieving this requires a concerted effort on educational and communication levels as a pre-requisite to raising public awareness of what citizenship entails. This, in turn, will begin to change mentalities and eventually lead to change on the ground.
Such a collegial and collective exercise will only bear fruit and allow us to celebrate our democracy, in practice and not in theory, once we admit that the system is broken and needs fundamental surgery, rather than a cosmetic makeover.
Today, politicians are debating Lebanon’s parliamentary election law, with different parties proposing varying systems — ranging from proportional representation on one end of the spectrum to majority rule on the other. Though of key importance, the law will still amount to a band-aid rather than a vaccine unless mentalities change and voters realize the importance of the election process and the difference between casting a vote and electing a representative.
The difference is similar to a one-night encounter and a committed marriage; in the former both parties go their own separate ways after the deed is done, whereas in the latter both are accountable to one another as long as the marriage lasts.
To this effect, as part of communicating to the public the new election law, the government and civil society organizations have a duty to educate voters on the meaning and importance of carrying out their civic duty of electing their representatives in a responsible manner. It must be explained that democracy can be a potent remedy against the practice of bribery and buying votes.
It remains that if we are to ensure that the Arab uprisings do not turn into recurring or perpetual unrest, politicians in the region have to realize that they can no longer afford to talk down to their constituents, while the latter also need to play their part in keeping their elected officials in check, holding them accountable for their promises and sanctioning them whenever they stray from their roles and responsibilities.