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Why hopes remain dim for free and fair elections in Lebanon

Why hopes remain dim for free and fair elections in Lebanon
7 min read
10 May, 2022
In-depth: As the Lebanese people take to the polls on 15 May, many hope elections can oust the ruling class and spark economic recovery, but voting has already been marred by corruption and clientelism.

Welcome to The New Arab’s coverage of Lebanon’s General Election 2022 held on May 15, 2022. Follow live updates, results, analyses, and opinion in our special hub here.

On 15 May, Lebanon will hold parliamentary elections for the first time since the popular uprising that targeted the country’s political elite three years ago.

Since then, anger at the ruling class has grown exponentially due to a self-inflicted economic crisis that has plunged millions into poverty, locked them out of their bank accounts, and eradicated their savings.

The Beirut port blast on 4 August 2020, which people largely blame on the negligence of the sectarian government, compounded the grief. More than 200 people died while hundreds of thousands lost their homes.

Now, people are hoping that they can replace those responsible for the economic crisis and destruction of the capital through the ballot box. However, experts warn that corruption, a divided opposition, and - most notably - doubts over whether voting centres will properly function could derail popular attempts to oust the ruling class.

“[This is] one of the worst elections in terms of preparedness of logistics,” Ayman Mhanna, the Executive Director of the Samir Kassir Foundation told The New Arab. “The supervisory commission for elections doesn't even have the basic funds from the government.”

While electricity cuts were never uncommon in Lebanon, many regions now go up to 22 hours a day without power. Private generators are relied on but are increasingly expensive.

The state power provider, Électricité du Liban, has demanded $16 million dollars in an upfront cash payment - 30 percent more than the total cost of holding elections domestically and abroad, according to the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) - to guarantee the lights stay on during voting.

“This doesn't necessarily create a climate for very well managed elections and it might lead to really bad results,” Mhanna said. “I'm not talking here about electoral results, but that on election day, nobody truly understands how electricity will work.”

Diaspora voting, which took place on 9 May, has been so disorganised that accusations of voter obstruction have already emerged and a vote to withdraw confidence from the foreign minister has been called. But international actors have put pressure on Lebanon to hold elections on time regardless of the potential pitfalls.

A graffiti mural depicting a 100,000 Lebanese pound banknote being reflected in a mirror as a 1000 Lebanese pound note, symbolising the level of inflation caused by the shrinking Lebanese economy, in Tripoli. [Getty]

Chaos fuels traditional elites

Lebanon once boasted a healthy middle class but today three-quarters of the population now live below the poverty line. Food prices have skyrocketed, changing eating habits and forcing a third of the population to forgo meals altogether. Fuel is in short supply and pharmacies are without even basic medication, leading people to turn to friends and family travelling abroad to fill their prescriptions.

“[These shortages have] prompted many candidates to exploit the people’s needs in order to consolidate and strengthen their client network,” Cendrella Azar, Media & Communications Coordinator at LADE, said.

One way corruption has traditionally manifested during Lebanese elections is through clientelism, namely vote buying, where candidates offer money or services in exchange for votes from constituents in their districts. Vote-buying favours the traditional parties who have more resources due to foreign funding or strong patronage networks.

During July 2021’s fuel crisis, multiple political parties distributed fuel to their supporters. Many also traded vaccinations for votes.

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Meanwhile, a number of independent and less established candidates were not even able to open bank accounts or spend the money in their banks, according to reports received by LADE. Instead, they are forced to deposit money with the Ministry of Finance.

Today, 48 percent of the Lebanese population considers stopping corruption the country’s top priority, according to Statistics Lebanon.

Potential for change

In January, Saad al-Hariri, former Prime Minister and head of the Future Movement, a powerful Sunni party, announced he was suspending his role in politics and wouldn’t run for reelection. In addition to Hariri, current Premier Najib Mikati has also said he will not run for reelection.

In the 2018 elections, 17 government ministers ran for reelection. This time Lebanese may be buoyed by the fact that no current minister is running for parliament. Still, Mikati will support lists in the north, while a number of long-serving members of the establishment are putting their sons up for their old seats.

“You will have a lot of new faces in the Sunni community due to Hariri's withdrawal,” Mhanna said. “At the same time, even established political parties except Amal and Hezbollah have largely identified new candidates.”

Only four percent of the Lebanese population views Hariri as the ideal political figure in the country, according to polls conducted by Statistics Lebanon. The most popular leader in the country is Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, seen by about 10 percent as an ideal leader, though this pales in comparison to the 60 percent of the population who say the ideal political figure does not exist.

“The change we can realistically hope for is to have a small but significant block of a dozen members of Parliament who can add more transparency by leaking draft legislation and engaging in consultations with stakeholders in a more meaningful way,” Mhanna said.

Since 2005, Lebanon’s political coalitions have largely been divided between the pro-Saudi and Western 14 March bloc and the pro-Iranian and Syrian 8 March bloc. Saudi Arabia has played a significant role in past elections by supporting Hariri and recently held an iftar with a number of leading Lebanese political figures, including some of Hariri’s former Sunni opponents.

“We're in a situation where things are so catastrophic and where the connections among the ruling big six parties, even those who oppose each other, are clearly established in that they feed into and benefit each other,” Mhanna said.

In October 2019, widespread protests erupted across Lebanon against increased taxes, a collapsing economy, and political corruption. Now, many hope to expel the ruling elites through the ballot box. [Getty]

The opposition divide

During the October 2019 revolution, the mantra 'killon yaane killon' or 'all of them means all of them' emerged as a rejection of the entire political class, leading to the emergence of a number of new political actors and movements.

In 2022, most voting districts have two or three lists running against the traditional political parties. Around 50 percent of voters polled in December 2021 believed parliamentary elections could bring change and 45 percent said they would vote for new parties.

While there are a healthy number of alternative candidates and lists, many have lamented the opposition’s failure to unite in the face of such dire economic and civil circumstances.

“Egos and political differences could have been managed in a different way due to the emergency and due to the exceptional circumstances that the country is going through,” Mhanna said.

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This has manifested in a political quadrant that includes left and right but also the more traditional Lebanese political divide between 8 March and 14 March. However, the latter issue is less about outside allegiances and more on what stance each group takes on Hezbollah’s arms.

“The Hezbollah issue is central today,” Mhanna said, adding that some lists feel “it's more important to focus on corruption and be soft on Hezbollah in order to not alienate their base fully and not to actually risk the lives and the security of candidates in Hezbollah dominated regions.”

There is also what might be called the Kataeb problem, referring to the right-wing Christian party and forces of the same name. The former militia has tried rebranding itself as part of the democratic opposition to the ruling establishment since the 2019 revolution.

Some alternative parties, such as the opposition party formed after the October revolution Taqqadom, have agreed to ally with Kataeb in what they see as a better chance of winning votes. But other alternative parties have refused to join lists with a party they see as still part of the traditional establishment.

“There was a consensus among several of the parties that emanated from the October 17 revolution to actually group together in front of the huge dominance of some of the political parties,” Najat Aoun, also known as Najat Saliba, a candidate for MP in the Chouf, told The New Arab.

“And so Taqqadom opted as a political party to be part of this coalition.”

Faced with a litany of hard decisions, the Lebanese people will head to the polls next week. With 75 percent of the population living under the poverty line and the fate of the country hanging in the balance, this election could prove to be the first step toward economic recovery.

“It won't necessarily lead to a change nationally but it might bring some positive processes inside parliament,” Mhanna said. “That's unfortunately the highest level of optimism I can have. Not more.”

Justin Salhani is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France. He was previously based in Washington, DC and Beirut, Lebanon.

Follow him on Twitter: @JustinSalhani