As Lebanon heads to the polls, little expected to change

The country is plagued by a deep economic crisis, as well as social and political instability.

 Lebanese President Michel Aoun listens to Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib speak at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as Lebanese expats vote in Lebanon's parliamentary election, in Beirut, Lebanon May 8, 2022. (photo credit: DALATI NOHRA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun listens to Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib speak at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as Lebanese expats vote in Lebanon's parliamentary election, in Beirut, Lebanon May 8, 2022.
(photo credit: DALATI NOHRA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

The people of Lebanon are heading to the polls on May 15 to elect a new parliament. The Lebanese diaspora already cast ballots on Sunday in 48 different countries, showing an unprecedented level of participation while expressing hope that the results will help solve the country's problems.

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This week’s parliamentary elections are the first since Lebanon sank into a deep economic crisis, as well as social and political instability in the country.

Lebanon is facing a critical situation. According to the World Bank, Lebanon is currently going through one of the world's worst economic crises since the mid-nineteenth century. Today, almost 80% of the population of Lebanon is enduring poverty, and the inflation rates have caused the Lebanese pound to lose more than 90% of its value.

Since October 2019, many Lebanese citizens have taken to the streets to protest against the economic situation of the country, the high levels of corruption in the ruling class, and the dysfunctional performance of the fragmented government.

Also, since the last parliamentary elections held in 2018, two major events have aggravated the situation in the country: the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Beirut Port explosion in August 2020 that left more than 200 people dead, 7,000 people injured, and 300,000 people homeless, and caused $15 billion in property damage.

Vehicles drive past pictures of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, ahead of the parliamentary election that is scheduled for May 15, in Taalabaya, Lebanon. Picture taken May 4, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER)Vehicles drive past pictures of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, ahead of the parliamentary election that is scheduled for May 15, in Taalabaya, Lebanon. Picture taken May 4, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER)

Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University, told The Media Line that the elections come at a time of high anti-government sentiment, due to the political difficulties and economic hardship.

This is reflected in the many young people who are expressing anti-establishment political views, and voicing discontent with the traditional political regime which is blamed for all the difficulties and economic failures that the country has faced, he explained.

Young people, Salamey said, "are searching for alternative candidates to cast their votes for. Meaning those candidates who are not associated with dominant traditional political parties in the country, or the political elite."

"They are looking for alternative individuals who can shift the direction of the country toward economic revival and reconstruction," he added.

Many Lebanese people have expressed hope that the situation will change due to this week’s elections.

Silvia Boltuc, managing director of the SpecialEurasia geopolitical analysis platform, believes that the timing of the elections is not favorable for changing the ruling class or revolutionizing the political system, as many young people desire.

"The elections could not have come at a worse time," Boltuc told The Media Line.

She noted that Syria currently is unstable, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is heating up, the invasion of Ukraine has created a severe grain crisis in Lebanon, and the country has become a battleground for regional powers.

"There is little hope for progressive alternatives in the upcoming elections," she continued.

Boltuc claims that the electoral process, which was supposed to counter corruption and sectarian divisions, is making the situation worse.

She attributes this to the fact that several sectarian parties have exploited the food crisis and the pandemic to provide services to local populations in order to win their votes.

Lebanon has a unique political history. Since its foundation, the country has been governed by a sectarian political system with set public positions for each of the main religious groups residing within its borders.

Under the Lebanese National Pact, the power-sharing arrangement established in 1943 between Lebanese Christians and Muslims, the president is always a Maronite Christian and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, while the speaker of the National Assembly must be a Shiite Muslim.

Lately, there has been a movement afoot to change this system. Those who oppose the method claim that the sectarian political system paves the way for the corruption, fragmentation, and dysfunction of the government and, now, it is proven by the harsh situation of the country.

Though this represents the wish of many Lebanese citizens, there are others who are not interested in changing the ruling class or the political system.

Salamey points out that this could be due to two main reasons: either they benefit from the existing order, or they fear that the emerging political leadership is weak and inexperienced.

A Lebanese citizen who had the opportunity to immigrate but chose to stand up to the current political regime and believes in a civil state capable of governing and securing social justice, told The Media Line that he doesn't see these alternative leaders as the solution.

"It appears that the new candidates who claim change and to be against the political class, are mostly former members of this class. They are using the opportunity given to them in this election to take advantage of the pain of the Lebanese people," said the man who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely.

For the elections, every Lebanese citizen over the age of 21 casts two ballots: The first one is a vote for a list of candidates, and the second is a vote for a specific candidate to increase his or her chances of being elected to parliament.

This year most of the Lebanese political parties representing the three major religious groups in the country are running once again.

Representing the largest Shiite Muslim bloc is Hezbollah and its parliamentary leader, Muhammed Raad. The Amal movement, a second Shiite party that is aligned on most issues with Hezbollah, is led by Nabih Berri.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian arrives to meet with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut, Lebanon March 24, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER)Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian arrives to meet with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut, Lebanon March 24, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER)

Salamey notes that most Shiite citizens who vote for the traditional parties choose these parties.

The country’s Christian population has been fragmented for a long time. The most representative Christian party is the Free Patriotic Movement led by Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, who is expected to be weakened even more after these elections due to division in the Christian segment of the population.

The Sunni Muslim faction also is expected to be divided after its most influential leader, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, head of the Future Movement party, decided to withdraw his candidacy leaving a void on his party's candidate list that could be filled by many actors.

Boltuc says that Sunni voters were divided into two groups after Hariri's withdrawal: one will abstain from voting, while the second believes there is a possibility of change, noting that the Sunnis control more than half of the electoral districts in Lebanon.

Salamey said that the void left by Hariri's withdrawal could benefit Hezbollah and the pro-Syrian parties, as he acknowledged that many of the votes could as well be garnered by the independent alternative leaders.

The number of independent candidates in this week’s elections has doubled over the last elections in 2018. Many of them are activists who have spent the last few years protesting against the political establishment.

In addition, there is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Lebanon, which is secular and driven by a pan-Arab ideology. It is led by Assaad Hardan, and is expected to strengthen its position in the elections, partly due to the withdrawal of Hariri.

Roger Achkar, a former European Commission and United Nations senior official, told The Media Line that recent events in the country might cause voters to vote differently.

"The Beirut blast and the economic crisis will encourage many Lebanese citizens to vote against the corrupt Lebanese politicians," said Achkar.

Boltuc says that, following the economic collapse and political scandals, the population is disillusioned with the ruling political class.

However, she noted, the Lebanese people have immediate needs, such as access to medical care, electricity and food.

In this sense, she continued, "some political parties have replaced the state in providing services to the poorest, gaining support." 

This suggests that, while the traditional parties are broadly blamed for the situation, they are also taking political advantage of it to gain support.

The Lebanese man who asked to remain anonymous believes that, in the wake of the economic crisis and the Beirut Port blast, some people will vote out of revenge; however, he added, "it is obvious that the political class will not be reformed in these elections since all activists of political parties still consider their party to be correct and that the rest of the political class is preventing them from achieving their agenda."

Meanwhile, the Saudi and Kuwaiti ambassadors recently returned to Lebanon after leaving the country because of the influence of Hezbollah and Iran.   

Boltuc believes that their return is related to the elections and the political instability that the country faces.

"Due to the current situation, this absence is dangerous both for Sunni monarchies and the Lebanese political scene. If leaving the country at that time was a strategic move to pressure the government and downsize Hezbollah's role, it would be a dangerous absence during the electoral process," she noted.

Achkar expressed relief that the European Union is observing these Lebanese elections.

"The only and best solution to put an end to corruption in Lebanon and to change the long-lasting political situation, is that the newly elected members of parliament and members of the new cabinet conclude a framework agreement with the European Union which would place the country fully and directly under the European Union management," he said.

He explained that the European Union would then appoint a large number of observers and auditors throughout all Lebanese government frameworks in order to eradicate corruption, in part by replacing corrupt and incompetent officials with honest and competent staff members.

The current ruling regime in Lebanon will not allow for any real change, according to the anonymous Lebanese man. He believes that if new figures arrive in parliament and fail to fulfill their promises to fight corruption and Hezbollah's weaponry, the Lebanese people will be discouraged by the outcome - which could lead to the reelection of current political figures.

The real fight in Lebanon, he said, "is to change the regime and not the figures and the people. I think that the majority do not believe in this approach but I hope that the results of the elections will prove them wrong."