Originally published in Bold Magazine

By Habib Battah

Not long after our new prime minister Tammam Salam took office, his posters immediately began to crop up around town, haphazardly strung across the highways from light posts or placed at the entrance of the airport road tunnel.

The expected phrase, “We are with you great leader”  was printed above Salam’s smiling pose— one even featured an image of his father, Saeb Salam, who served as prime minister six terms. But why would canvassing Lebanese drivers matter when the prime minister is not elected by the public but appointed by his fellow parliamentarians, and the voting had already taken place?

A similar curiosity surrounds a large billboard featuring incumbent President Michel Sleiman that went up in the East Beirut suburbs over recent weeks. The ad contains no text, just a grinning Sleiman flanked by a fluttering Lebanese flag. Again the president is not up for reelection and voting is done by members of parliament, not the public.

What are Lebanese politicians telling us? That getting into office is not enough; that they also need to be cheered to do their job better, like a basketball player at the free throw line? And how does that work exactly? Do the politicians telepathically feel our good vibes when we believe in them; and if so, when has that ever materialized into benefits to citizens?  

Even if such intangible support were to translate into results, what then should we make of the posters promoting politicians once they leave office? Take the recent plastering of Ashraf Rifi, the outgoing head of the internal security forces. When his term was not renewed, posters of a saluting Rifi automatically went up across his hometown of Tripoli, on billboards, buildings, roundabouts, even attached to road signs. Slogans read “You were with us and we will be with you,” and “Respect does not fade.”  Like the spots promoting the President and Prime Minister, it was not clear if the Rifi ads were rented from the municipality or simply a brash appropriation of public space.  

The small print below a Rifi ad covering a pedestrian bridge north of Beirut suggested it had been sponsored by “the people of Ashrafieh.” Did neighborhood residents pass around a basket to pay for it?

Less vague are the massive banners praising Energy Minister Gebran Bassil as “the cherished native son,” across highway overpasses in his hometown of Batroun. The text beneath one ad reads “The Municipality of Batroun.”

So how did the municipality justify this allocation of public funds? Did it hold a referendum asking citizens if they wanted to pay for a campaign promoting a current member of government? Or did the municipal council unanimously assume that promoting Bassil would lead to favoritism toward the town or at least its council members?

Perhaps it was this same unwritten quid-pro-quo formula that motivated the unexplained campaigns promoting the president, prime minister and outgoing security chief.

Unlike the others though, Minister Bassil will most probably be running for a seat in Parliament in upcoming elections–if they are ever held. Having lost his bid for the hometown district both in 2005 and 2009, one assumes he has been trying hard to woo municipal board members ever since. And by the looks of the ads, whatever he has been doing seems to have worked.

The Lebanese public are likely to see a lot more of Bassil and other faces smiling down at them along the roadways if the current dispute over election redistricting is ever resolved, and polls are held some time next year.

Citizens should pay close attention to who is paying for those ads and where they are placed. Many will likely be erected illegally on public property, such as road signs, light posts and highway overpasses. Who are the men on the ground hanging these ads and who has provided them immunity to violate the law?

Even when political spots are legitimately placed on billboards, some may be paid for by mysteriously vague organizations and others will not even bother to create a fictitious sponsor. Voters should pay particular attention to incumbent candidates and their ability to abuse the power of office and official channels to promote personal campaigns.

Bassil himself is particularly proud of a crime-busting mobile application his ministry recently created called “Don’t hang it.” The app allows citizens to photograph and report the illegal hanging of power cables that can be used to syphon electricity off the national grid.

Wouldn’t it be great if someone could come up with a similar app to report abuses of power in the political campaign process, particularly the hanging of illegal ads and their suspicious sponsorship agreements.

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