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Lebanese hope for change in May 15 parliamentary elections

Despite furstration with Lebanon's established political leaders and parties, opposition groups have yet to present a strong, unified alternative.
A demonstrator clad in a mask colored with the Lebanese flag.

BEIRUT — With parliamentary elections rapidly approaching, Lebanese voters are bracing for what many are calling a make or break moment for their beleaguered country.

Years of political unrest and protests against systemic corruption, beginning in 2019 with the October Revolution, has led to a state of political paralysis. Since then, the situation has only continued to deteriorate due to a series of calamitous events including the global COVID-19 pandemic, the collapse of the Lebanese pound and the deadly Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion that devastated the capital in mid-2020.

Serious concerns remain around Lebanon’s disastrous economic crisis as well as access to basic necessities like fuel, electricity and medicine. Power blackouts are common and food prices have dramatically increased as suppliers are forced to import goods using foreign currencies purchased at exorbitant black market rates.

“My concern is that the disastrous [conditions] we have been living in for the past two and a half years will continue and worsen,” hospitality professional Rita Ghantous told Al-Monitor. “This country is unrecognizable — a shadow of its real self.”

“The country’s current ordeals speak for themselves in terms of the performance of the political class,” she explained. “For me, it is all about who will be able to get us out of this slump without any further anguish. In my opinion, the Lebanese have been punished and humiliated enough.”

Lebanon’s parliament is primarily divided according to religious sects, distributing reserved seats in each constituency based on their demographic proportions. Candidates form allied lists that reflect the demographics of their particular constituency, which are then voted on by the electorate.

In theory, this is meant to ensure that all of Lebanon’s religious communities are represented in parliament. However, in practice, this system is easily exploited through gerrymandering. No new census has been carried out in Lebanon for decades, and voters are often forced to return to their constituency of birth in order to vote.

“The country’s political leaders are preoccupied with their survival and the protection of their privileges,” telecom technician Saria Cheaib Ismail told Al-Monitor.  

“We need to change the mentality and the way that people think about political stuff — to stop approaching political matters from a sectarian point of view and more of [being] one country,” agreed social media manager Ali Samadeh. “Nobody wants to understand this.”

Opposition groups in Lebanon face an uphill battle to break the hold that entrenched political parties hold on their constituencies. Despite nearly 40% of Lebanese being willing to vote for an independent candidate — according to a poll conducted by the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation — there is little unity between independents, splitting their votes.

“The ‘social movement’ has not been able to unify itself in a way to introduce tangible changes,” financier Ziad Hariri told Al-Monitor. “In addition, political elites are handling this election as if it's a matter of [survival], rallying the troops and reviving older slogans. There is a real fear [we will] witness another wave of social unrest post-election.”

“I am not very convinced with any of the candidates,” he continued. “Despite their wide representation, current [parliament members] have failed everyone in averting the economic meltdown. No one in Lebanon wants to be held accountable. They all have a stake in everything and have partners in every project, compatriots in profits, opponents in losses.”

Many in Lebanon are becoming increasingly vocal against the political corruption and the perceived inaction of the country’s ruling class. This is most acutely felt with regard to the investigation into the Beirut port blast, which has seen multiple attempts by Hezbollah and its allies to block progress when their own members have been targeted for investigation.

Most government policies are vague at best and ineffective at worst, designed to hold back angry detractors. Despite reaching a staff-level agreement with the International Monetary Fund in order to provide urgent financial aid, the government has yet to implement the reforms contingent on its implementation. For now, many citizens are trapped in limbo, unable to access savings locked in Lebanon’s ailing banks.

Based on the interviews conducted by Al-Monitor, those seeking reform in Lebanon are typically of the younger generation, many of whom have left their country to seek better prospects abroad, while those who remain are typically older and more conservative. Entrenched political factions can thus draw upon the sectarian loyalties of their base.

Some candidates take a more direct approach, taking advantage of Lebanon’s desperate state of crisis by offering prospective voters "gifts" in exchange for pledges of support.

“I’ve been getting phone calls from political parties asking if I will vote for [them],” Mouna Jaber, retired, told Al-Monitor. “They promise to secure medicine or food for me, but I tell them I want nothing. They try to win you over now and then, the moment they get their chair they stop caring.”

“I want someone who will improve the country, provide healthcare, electricity and water, just so we can live,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what sect or if they are the same as mine; only that they do something for this country. If they’re all like the current politicians who do nothing for Lebanon and made us beggars, then I won’t vote for anyone.”

Members of the Lebanese diaspora are being encouraged by secular and opposition groups to lend their votes to the elections back home, but the process for registering is far from straightforward. The decision to allow expatriates to vote has also been a major source of disagreement, leading to vacillations on the date of the elections.

With the stakes as high as they are, it remains to be seen if Lebanon’s leaders — old or new — can reverse the country’s dire fortunes. Without serious and meaningful change, Lebanon’s future remains uncertain.