Can Lebanon’s elections pull the country out of an abyss?

Demonstrators hold a banner in Arabic during a protest over the deteriorating economic situation, in Beirut, Lebanon April 10, 2021. The banner reads” they are all crooks and we mean all ( the politicians ) and we are all revolutionaries and we mean all of us (Reuters)

On Sunday, Lebanese go to the polls for the first time since their 2019 uprising.

By Anchal Vohra,

BEIRUT—In the sleepy municipality of Lassa, 56 miles north of Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, sheep graze in the hills and Hezbollah flags flutter on nearly every rooftop. The country’s parliamentary elections are set to take place on May 15, and most of the banners in the majority Shiite area advertise the Hezbollah candidate, Raed Berro. “We will support Hezbollah because they support us. They help us with health care, with jobs, and they represent our faith in the parliament,” said Lassa resident Fatima Mokdad on Tuesday.

A 10-minute drive away, in the mountain village of Aaqoura, many support a rival party, the far-right Maronite Christian Lebanese Forces. Philippe Germanos, an apple and cherry farmer who plans to vote for an independent candidate, is frustrated that his fellow Christians will likely uphold sectarian rivalries. “Many Christians here see Hezbollah as their biggest enemy and are inclined to vote for Lebanese Forces,” he said on Monday, sitting near a fireplace in his cottage. “But this doesn’t help us take the country towards social and economic progress.”

Two years ago, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese of all sects took to the streets in a series of protests that engulfed the nation, calling for an end to the country’s confessional system that divides power on the basis of sect under a quota system. They hoped to usher in a new political class that would enact reforms to counter rampant corruption, establish an independent judiciary, and unlock international aid to help the country out of its worst-ever economic crisis. The protests forced then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign and garnered huge international support for political and economic reforms in the country. But since then, the country’s economy has steadily collapsed, and subsequent leaders, still believed to be under the thumb of the same ruling elite, have failed to resolve the country’s crises.

Sunday’s election—the first since the uprising—is crucial to pulling Lebanese politics out of an abyss, according to political analysts. But as election day approaches, few believe the new parties that emerged from the uprising, such as Beirut Resists and Citizens in a State, will succeed in unseating the ruling class that has clung to power since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990. Sectarian rivalries, such as those on display in Lassa and Aaqoura, remain strong, and established parties continue to maintain their hold over a substantial number of voters.

In an April survey of Lebanese voters conducted by Oxfam, 98 percent of the 4,675 respondents thought the ruling elite’s performance was bad. This comes as little surprise. The deadly port blast that took place in Beirut in August 2020 weakened people’s trust in a political class that they blamed for mismanaging the port. Meanwhile, 82 %  of Lebanese now live in poverty, and the Lebanese pound has lost over  90 percent of what it was worth in late 2019. Lines for gas have become longer, staples are missing from shelves, crime is on the rise, and the state provides electricity for only two to three hours a day, leaving the country dependent on “generator mafias.” Those who can are leaving the country; around 250,000 people have immigrated over the last two years.

Yet although Lebanese people are growing tired of the status quo, there are many barriers to change. In the Oxfam survey, 40 percent of those who were unhappy with the ruling class were still planning to vote for traditional parties because of financial patronage or commitment to village, family, and region. Analysts FP spoke to said such factors will continue to sway voters, including those who find the established parties ineffective.

Even those who want change are confused about which of the hundreds of new political entities they should support. More than 1,000 candidates are competing for a 128-seat legislature that currently has only one independent. In some constituencies, said Mark Daou, a professor of media studies at the American University of Beirut, there are as many as 15 different independent groups confusing voters.

“We have 300 political groups claiming to be of the opposition and of the revolution, and we don’t have any structure for having a discussion or of trying to coordinate between all of these opposition groups,” Jad Ghosn, a former journalist who is a candidate for the leftist group Citizens in a State, told the Associated Press.

“People relied on the new political class to usher in change, but they have failed to organize,” said Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese energy consultant and political analyst. “Many scattered groups participated in protests, and all of them felt they had the legitimacy and the right to represent their people in elections.”

Ego clashes and major policy disagreements have further divided the new political groups, making it even harder to put forward a unified front. Daou, an independent candidate from the city of Aley fielded by the Taqaddum party, an independent party founded in 2019, said differences over core issues, such as Hezbollah’s immense weapons arsenal and the extent of Iran’s intervention in Lebanese politics, made it impossible, for instance, for Taqaddum to come together with other political groups.

“Some groups believe Hezbollah’s weapons have a defensive function and that we shouldn’t be categorically opposed to them because there is a national benefit,” Daou said. “But others, like [the Taqaddum party], believe those weapons are illegitimate and undermine the state and the entire process of building a state.”

Taqaddum may even prove to be unpopular with many Lebanese seeking to overthrow the old sectarian elite when they cast their votes. Taqaddum claims to be secular but has agreed to partner with the Christian Kataib party, one of many traditional parties, in a political formation called the Lebanese Opposition Front. Such an alliance could be effective post-election but might harm Taqaddum’s chances.

Moreover, some analysts expect a complicated electoral system, introduced in 2017, to further help the old guard’s standing. Lebanon now votes on the basis of a proportional representation system, where several candidates form one list in an electoral district, which then competes with other lists. (This year, there are 103 lists and, on average, at least three different opposition lists in each of the 15 electoral districts.) A list needs a certain number of votes to qualify for a seat. That threshold is determined by dividing the number of votes by the number of seats in a constituency.

A high electoral threshold makes it more difficult for independent candidates to gain a seat—particularly in constituencies with a large number of voters—unlike traditional candidates who have larger resources, alliances, and mechanisms of support, said Christophe Kairouz, a senior research assistant at the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections. Gerrymandering and sectarian quotas continue to aid the ruling elite.

Bahaa Hariri—the son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whom a United Nations-backed tribunal determined was assassinated by Hezbollah operatives—believes the system was tailor-made to benefit Hezbollah in particular (though experts tend to agree that it favors all big traditional parties). “It is fairer in areas where candidates can compete without the threat of Hezbollah violence,” he said.

This election cycle, there have been reports of supporters of Hezbollah and the Shiite Amal Movement party intimidating independent candidate Hicham Hayek in the southern Lebanese village of Sarafand. One of them even pointed a gun at members of Hayek’s team, who were escorted to safety by Lebanese soldiers.

The new candidates seem vulnerable to political threats across the board. Alleged supporters of Saad Hariri, Bahaa Hariri’s brother, threatened representatives of Beirut Resists when the group conducted a public meeting with residents of Tarik el Jdideh, a poor Beirut neighborhood. (Saad Hariri’s party, the Future Movement, is not running in the elections, and Bahaa Hariri’s campaign, Sawa Li Lubnan, has not managed to field a single candidate.)

Even though the prospects seem grim, some experts said the independent candidates still have a chance to form alliances after the election as long as some are elected. “It would have been better had they come up with one or two lists, but diversity is not such a bad thing,” political analyst Sami Nader said. “They can even form a block after the elections.”

Others said that even if 10 or 20 of the new politicians won seats in Parliament, they could challenge the ruling class from within. “Ten [members of Parliament (MPs)] can challenge any decision in the Parliament, so if decisions go against the people and in favor of the political elite, these independent MPs could block such decisions,” Haytayan said, referring to the constitutional provision under which 10 lawmakers can approach the constitutional council with a request to invalidate a law. That could affect controversial legislation on economic reform, judicial accountability, and corruption.

But while some citizens still harbor hope that on election day Lebanese will remember their woes, most seem to have low expectations. Gilbert Doumit, who failed to win a seat as an independent candidate in the country’s 2018 elections, is disheartened that the uprising didn’t lead to much. Lebanese like him, he said, might have to wait for the next election to see the change they protested for.

“The country is not ready yet for the radical change I believe in,” Doumit said. “Hopefully, the country will be more ready during the next elections.”

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

(Foreign Policy )