BEIRUT—This May, Lebanon held its first competitive elections in six years. Elections featured fierce and well-organized challengers to the establishment. For the first time, voters had the chance to throw the bums out. It was no surprise that when the votes were counted, most of the bums were still comfortably in place in Lebanon’s municipal halls.

In the most pluralistic and apparently competitive country in the Middle East, why do citizens return to the same old groups of political bosses? The answer lies at the bottom of the power pyramid—in the alleyways where strongmen round up votes for their bosses.

Municipal elections in Lebanon are testimony to how the Lebanese political machine continues to control every cent of public money, on every block and alley. Today, the common Lebanese lives in a perpetual state of emergency—angry yet completely dependent on a corrupt political class. In a country where the basic functions of the state are obsolete, sectarian leaders continue to exercise local control over their political enclaves. Sectarian leaders have got people where it hurts the most: their livelihoods.

This logic has sapped the energy out of voters. Democracy has become a spectator sport that only a powerful few have the right to participate in. Citizens are sidelined while their many bickering bosses divide up the spoils of the system. The Lebanese sectarian system delivers based on incumbency, and not competency. My recent study of the Hariri family’s political machine in Sidon illustrates the pains political dynasties take to extend their control to every street corner, choking any prospect for decent development or political competition.

For the predominantly Sunni Future Movement, more than any other party today, municipal elections are a necessary show of political weight. Dominant Sunni politician and former prime minister, Saad Hariri, returned from his five-year self-imposed exile four months ago to address the movement’s deep financial crisis, legitimacy gap, and leadership vacuum.

Future’s latest spectacle is a win in southern Sunni-majority city of Sidon after a victory in Beirut three weeks ago by a much smaller margin. The biggest surprise came in the impoverished northern city of Tripoli, the largest Sunni hub in Lebanon. A protégé of Saad Hariri defeated an alliance of all the city’s powerful political bosses—not because he offered a strategy for change, but because he promised to do even better than his mentor at delivering sectarian patronage.

On the night of Sidon’s elections, Saad Hariri visited his father’s hometown for the first time since his return. He waved to the frenzied crowd and congratulated the Hariri-backed “Development of Sidon” municipal list even before final results were out.

He addressed his remarks to his father, a slain former prime minister: “We tell martyr premier Rafik Hariri: this is Sidon that loved you and Lebanon that loved you, from Beirut to Tripoli,” he shouted. “Sidon is always loyal and proud.”

From the first round of elections, he praised the flawed balloting process: “These (elections) prove that Lebanon’s democracy is in good shape and we can hold elections.”

For the Lebanese voter, municipal elections are proof that the country’s political bosses have taken democracy hostage. The bosses have managed to scare a majority of voters into believing that any attempt to fix the system could cause further instability. A majoritarian electoral system excludes a large portion of the population. Sectarian leaders handpick municipal candidates and an aggressive political environment intimidates anyone that dares to challenge the establishment.

The disenfranchised citizens have resigned from political life. The dissatisfied have lost all hope of changing the system. The angry Lebanese complain about how they are ignored by their local bosses, of how their bosses no longer secure jobs for them or provide social services free of charge; or, absurdly, of how the system of nepotism and favoritism no longer works as well as it used to. And supporters of established parties no longer see elections as a democratic contest, but as an orchestrated dance with preordained results.

“There is no battle,” says Hajj Adnan, who worked in the city of Sidon during elections as an observer for the Future Movement. Added a volunteer beside him: “We are not voting today, we are renewing a pledge.”

Elections in Sidon are a textbook case of how the Lebanese boss system has programmed voters to think of social, economic, and even personal development solely in political-sectarian terms.

Bahia Hariri’s Development Trump Card

How does the system work? Sidon provides a glaring case study. Bahia Hariri—local political boss, member of parliament and president of the Hariri Foundation—has co-opted the work of Sidon’s municipal council for years now. Almost all of Sidon’s residents know that nothing happens without her approval.

The secret to the Future Movement’s power in Sidon stems from the inside, says Mustapha Abu Dahr, another Future Movement volunteer. In an interview, Abu Dahr draws closer and smiles: “Bahia Hariri is the Future Movement, the brains behind it all.”

Bahia Hariri’s political success depends on the tangible development results she delivers. Many voters said that they voted for the “Development of Sidon” list because incumbent mayor Mohammad Saoudi has delivered goods for the city. “We have seen and we have tried,” many voters said.

Bahia Hariri downplayed political rhetoric and capitalized on what Mayor Saoudi represents: the successful businessman of integrity who has sacrificed his money and energy for his hometown. With him and her team of civil society organizations and political brokers, they could do miracles.

In the lead-up to elections, the Future Movement campaigned on the one achievement that was on the tip of every voter’s tongue: the Sidon Dumpsite Project. Where other municipalities failed in the past, Al-Saoudi succeeded. He got rid of an infamous pile of garbage on the coast known as Sidon’s trash mountain. In its place he built a solid waste treatment center and a public park on top of it, all with the help of future parliament member Bahia Hariri and Fouad Siniora. Many say Bahia Hariri blocked previous municipal councils, controlled by rival parties, from resolving problems like the trash mountain, waiting until an ally was in control of the city before letting projects move forward.

Abou Dahr firmly believes Saoudi is an independent who barely consults with Bahia Hariri. “During his term, she was the one to give Saoudi the push in the ministries for the big projects, but now he is giving the [Future] Movement a push,” he said.

In reality, a Hariri-backed municipality takes up a Hariri-drafted development strategy and consults with Bahia Hariri every step of the way.

Voters prefer to see a politically backed list in municipal office. Without political backing, people fear candidates can barely put a word in the ministries. Better the devil you know than the savior you don’t.

Whose Door Should I Knock On?

Voting behavior is direct proof of people’s dependence on the patronage network the bosses, or zaims, have consolidated in the city. Both supporters and rivals know that a municipality that does not have a zaim’s blessing can only go so far.

“They [the Hariris] are the authority,” says Nassif Issa, an accredited observer of the rival Hezbollah-backed list led by the Popular Nasserite Organization. He admits that residents have no other door to knock on for favors.

When asked how the Nasserite list could sidestep Bahia Hariri’s power in the city if it won, Issa pursed his lips and looked away. “I don’t know,” he admitted. He himself did not believe the list stood a chance.

The Hariri-backed list scored twice as many votes as its Nasserite rival. Saoudi received the highest number of votes.

Saad Hariri’s declaration that “democracy is in good shape” notwithstanding, Lebanon’s version allows no room for real opposition. Aside from wealthy businessmen and modern day feudal lords, fresh actors are not welcome to disrupt the delicate balance of power.

The only significant rivals to the Future Movement in Sidon, the Nasserites, remain a reactive bunch that has mastered the art of negative campaigning. Today, they merely register as an rhetorical objection to the Future Movement’s shady dealings and high-class profile.

Even the bitter Lebanese who despise the Hariri dynasty tend only to criticize them because they have failed to uphold their side of the bargain—rather than because they object to the notion of patron-client politics. “I voted for Hariri in the last elections because I thought it would get me a job or at least some recognition, but now, tell me, who is getting a job from them?” complained Mohammad Bawji, a fisherman and member of the Nasserite Organization.

Abed, a vegetable shop owner, criticizes the current municipality in a similar vein. “They covered the whole country with cement,” he said. “What do I want with a commercial port if I can’t pay rent? All they do, they do for the press and tourists.” Abed reminisced about the days of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, when he could get free medication at the Hariri medical centers, and benefit from Hariri’s open social services. Like many other disenfranchised Lebanese, Abed does not bother to vote.

The strange co-dependency of the citizens to their zaims has put today’s Lebanese version of democracy in a gridlock—and sadly has provided a model for would-be despots and political machine builders across the region. Corruption promises some tit for tat; “You scratch my back, I scratch yours,” as the saying goes. Today in Lebanon, one side is not holding up its end of the bargain.