Sunday’s Lebanese legislative elections offer the possibility of change – however small – from the corruption, neglect and stagnation that have ruined the country’s economyensured relative impunity for the devastating 2020 Beirut port explosion and enabled the extremist group Hezbollah to secure a greater proportion of seats in the Legislative Assembly.
Sunday’s turnout in Lebanon could exceed 60%, a 10% increase from the 2018 parliamentary elections. That, combined with strong turnout from the Lebanese diaspora in places like Dubai and Paris, could mean that opposition groups get up to 10 seats in the 128-seat parliament, according to Osama Gharizi, the program’s senior adviser for the Middle East and North. Africa Center at the American Institute for Peace. “A big increase in the number of voters here would probably drive a lot of new groups into parliament for the first time on Sunday,” Gharizi, who is based in Beirut, told Vox via email. “The acute economic and governance crises that have plagued the country since 2019 are expected to mean a higher turnout than in 2018, which stood at nearly 50 percent.”
These crises include runaway inflation and high poverty – according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asiamore than 80% of the country’s population 6.8 million now live in some form of poverty, measured by twenty different indicators, such as access to sanitation, health insurance and school attendance, as well as financial indicators such as income and wealth. Lebanon’s financial decentralization took years to prepare. Skyrocketing debt due to financial mismanagement under central bank governor Riad Salameh, as well as the withdrawal of Saudi support due to the growing influence of Hezbollah and Iran, and political reluctance to make reforms in exchange of foreign aid, have all contributed to the collapse of the economy.
The Lebanese people, tired of the government’s response to the economic crisis it had created, started protesting on October 17, 2019; a proposed tax on the WhatsApp messaging service broke the camel’s back. They demanded the the whole government resignschanting “all means all”, occupying many iconic buildings in downtown Beirut, but still scarred by bullets, and demanding an end to the sectarian divisions that pitted the population against each other while enriching political elites and keeping them in power.
However, the emergence of the Covid-19 virus dampened the momentum of protests until August 2020 Beirut Port Explosionwhich killed at least 218 people, injured more than 7,000 and moved hundreds of thousands. Independent investigations, and many Lebanese, argue that political negligence is responsible for the explosion; government officials failed to properly store the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that exploded after a fire broke out in the warehouse where it was stored. In the aftermath, neighbors fed each other, delivered medicine and organized to carry out home repairs. The government was nowhere to be found because those responsible had resigned en masse. Almost two years later, there is still no Justice for the citizens of Beirut, since the politicians have closed two successive investigations.
Lebanon’s governmental structure does not facilitate political change
The Lebanese parliament has a four-year term and its structure is divided along sectarian lines, between Muslim and Christian seats; although there is religious diversity in Lebanon, minority religious groups like the Druze must fit into the Muslim or Christian constituency and are allocated seats proportional to their population. Executive posts are always held by one of three main religious constituencies – the prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of parliament is a Shia, and the president is always a Maronite Christian. The religious denominational system, which has existed in one form or another throughout Lebanon’s modern history, has been codified in law as 1989 Taif Accordswhich set the conditions for the end of the civil war which lasted 15 years.
The division of political office along sectarian lines was apparently intended to maintain peace between religious groups after the brutal civil war, but it also perpetuated corruption political dynasties and allowed impunity for kleptocratic gamers who allegedly used the fragile country assets as their own personal safe. The Taif Accords also give broad power to the presidentallowing them to dismiss the prime minister and cabinet, and dissolve parliament, creating the conditions of abuse of power and cronyism that have long plagued Lebanese politics.
As Gharizi told Vox, “the Lebanese electoral system is biased [in] favor of the traditional parties in power. That shouldn’t be so surprising since they were the ones who designed it in 2017. It’s based on proportional representation (PR) and was first used in the 2018 election.” While some groups in the civil society were in favor of the change because it could allow candidates from non-traditional groups to participate in government, he said, “the traditional ruling parties have inserted details into the electoral system that essentially cancel out the advantages” , including a preferential vote for an individual within a coalition, which Gharizi says helps “secure the election of traditional leaders”.
Furthermore, the electoral districts “correspond to the constituencies of the traditional ruling parties” – in theory parallel to gerrymandering in the United States – and the Lebanese electoral tradition stipulates that people vote in their ancestral villages, which, Gharizi said, ” prevents the emergence of a strong concentration of opposition constituencies.
Because Lebanon’s economic problems are so deeply tied to the widely acknowledged corruption of political elites, the status quo cannot change until political institutions do. This kind of change seemed to be fomenting when Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim politician, former prime minister and scion of the Hariri political dynasty, announced that he was resigned from politics last January and urged his supporters to boycott the election. The young Hariri, who took office after his father Rafik was assassinated in 2005 while he was prime minister, is perhaps best known internationally for give millions of dollars to a young South African model between his terms as Prime Minister. Hariri, who resigned as prime minister during the 2019 protests, was later appointed on an interim basis by President Michel Aoun in October 2020; nine months later he resigned again, unable to form a new government.
While Hariri’s retirement from politics carried the risk of further stagnation and disarray, it was also a kind of admission that under his leadership and that of his political class, Lebanese society had suffered – and Hariri and his ilk were doing nothing to stop it.
Can Sunday’s vote make progress?
No election will bring the radical change that Lebanon needs and that the Lebanese people have been calling for for years now. While Gharizi acknowledged the anger and frustration felt by most Lebanese, he also told Vox that “the patronage and patronage networks of the traditional ruling parties run deep, which means that many still matter and have become more more dependent, given the current economic crisis, party largesse for basic needs.” This dependence “ensures that the traditional ruling parties are able to mobilize their supporters more easily at the polls than newcomers from the nascent opposition, thus guaranteeing a certain level of control and influence in the next parliament and government”, did he declare.
This means that even if Hariri Future Movement Party presented no candidate, other traditional political actors did, including the Shiite Hezbollah movement, which held 71 seats in parliament before the elections and whose supporters allegedly threatened election observers of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections. But other mainstream parties also resorted to unsavory methods to secure victory, according to Gharizi.
“Traditional ruling parties have reverted to tried and true campaign strategies rooted in fear, sectarian rhetoric and clientelism to mobilize voters,” he said. “Opposition groups are portrayed by ruling parties as being supported and funded either by traditional rivals or international actors, or as being too weak to protect the community from ‘the other’.”
Ultimately, any change for Lebanon will come from independent leaders, detached from the rulers who have held the country in check for decades. But the opposition movement is new, unaccustomed to political organizing and developing platforms and strategies, while mainstream parties have relied on their divisive sectarian messages, Gharizi said. But the fact that independent candidates even participated in this election in significant numbers “is in itself a key step in the political development of Lebanon and continues the gradual and long-term process of overhauling Lebanon’s anachronistic political system that began with the events of October 2019,” according to Gharizi.
As emerging political actors finally had a chance to campaign, a recent Oxfam report cites the “inability to present a unified and strong political discourse that makes them a serious alternative to the current ruling elites” as a major setback for these groups. Absent strong political platforms and meaningful coalitions – let alone funding to sustain campaigns – the report warns, discontent with the ruling class is simply not enough to get elected. independent candidates, much less to dismantle the whole corrupt and divisive system.
Ultimately, the outcome of this critical election hinges on turnout, as Gharizi told Vox. But as of 6:30 p.m. local time, according to Sami Atallah, founding director and research director of Beirut-based think tank The Policy Initiative, turnout was low — just 37.5%. “While Sunnis were supposed to boycott, surprisingly Shia and Christians also had a lower turnout. High level of voter apathy,” he tweeted on Sunday.
As of 6:30 p.m. nb, the turnout of 37.5% is low compared to the 2018 election of 49%. While Sunnis were expected to boycott, surprisingly Shias and Christians also had lower turnout. High level of voter apathy #Lebanonseelections2022
— sami atallah (@samiatallah1) May 15, 2022
Preliminary results should be available on Monday.