Lebanon’s upcoming general election, scheduled for May 15, is dominating the country’s media headlines, urging inflation, the collapse of the national currency, the prosecution of those responsible for the 2020 Beirut port blasts, and other crises , which have rocked the country aside the last few years.
It is as if the elections, which might not have taken place without significant international and regional pressure, are the lifeline that will rescue Lebanon from its agony.
Nearly 1,050 candidates are running on 103 electoral lists, compared to 77 lists in the last election in 2018. 181 of the candidates are women, the highest number ever. 86 candidates ran in the last elections, but only six won.
Lebanese citizens abroad have already cast their ballots amid intense media coverage.
The elections will be conducted in accordance with the Parliamentary Elections Law 44 of June 17, 2017. This provides for a legislature with 128 seats, whose members are elected for four years using a proportional representation system. Seats are distributed among the country’s various Christian and Muslim denominations according to their demographic weight.
The electoral law has been criticized on the grounds that it minimizes the prospects of the opposition and independent parties and aims to maintain control of mainstream parties and political blocs.
While it includes some reforms to previous electoral laws, it has also helped entrench blatant sectarianism. Some have called the law a recipe for dispute and the cause of the October 17, 2019 uprising because it provides neither adequate popular representation nor truly equal representation between Christians and Muslims.
Most of the campaigns of the 100+ lists and their candidates are based on ambiguous platforms, empty promises and slogans that play on the public’s emotions but offer no concrete solutions to the problems plaguing the Lebanese economy and public service delivery.
“They have denied you justice, so vote against them”, “Beirut needs heart” and “We liberate the government” are some of the slogans. One party’s campaign footage uses the May election date to look back on the May 7, 2008 clashes and Hezbollah militia’s invasion of Beirut.
Several forecasts suggest that turnout this year will be lower than in 2018, when turnout was 49.20 percent, compared to 54 percent in 2009.
Many analysts in Lebanon believe the elections will bring no significant changes, and Beirut Bar Association President Nader Kasbar has little hope of progress. As long as the mainstream parties control the situation – and they have the money, power and popularity – the results of the elections will not change, he said.
Much of this has to do with the fact that the grassroots uprising of 2019 ultimately yielded nothing concrete or constructive. “It produced individuals who lacked the skills, experience, and wisdom to manage the affairs of the public and the country,” Kasbar said.
“The independents have not managed to break through the wall of established parties as we have done in the Bar Association, where the lawyers have shown they are aware, level-headed and strong. This means that the Lebanese people need to be sensitized. They don’t need grand-sounding rhetoric that plays on sectarian sentiment or anti-corruption, especially given the corruption we’ve seen in some of those making such empty statements.”
Most electoral platforms this year are not serious and rarely go beyond slogans, Kasbar said, adding that most candidates pay lip service to vaguely worded programs that are then never implemented.
“Some of these candidates have been in office or in parliament for decades. What has changed that suddenly enables them to be successful with this program or where they have never been successful before,” he asked.
“We hope people are aware and don’t take the promises seriously. The broadcasts are for the elections and will not last any longer. They’re like fizzy drinks. They bubble up a bit and then they flatten out.”
He said he was impressed by the candidates who told people to vote “on their conscience”. If conscience were really the arbiter, “most candidates will have to hide their faces at home, especially those whose accomplishments in office or public life we know all too well.”
He also doesn’t have high hopes for the civil society that arose with the October 17 Movement. “The majority of the groups that took part in the uprising have shown that they are working to advance their own interests, not the well-being of the nation,” he said.
“They nominate themselves by the hundreds, compete with each other and run very expensive media campaigns. Meanwhile, their prospects of entering Parliament are very limited due to their lack of competence – although I would be quick to add that some candidates are very competent and well qualified to serve.”
The economic crisis in Lebanon is an important factor in the elections. It shapes public mood and is likely to influence voter turnout. It has also had an impact on the role of money in influencing voter opinion.
“The needy are influenced by whoever pays them,” Kasbar said. “A voter who cannot afford a loaf of bread will naturally vote for the candidate whose money helps support his family over a candidate who cannot.”
That means most of the votes will go to the mainstream parties and that the next parliament will consist of the same MPs apart from those who chose not to run in the current elections, such as the Future Movement and a handful of independents.
While the Shia groups Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah, and Amal, led by Nabil Berri, are confident of defeating the opposition in their districts of southern Beirut and southern Lebanon, the Sunni bloc in Lebanon is in an unusually difficult situation.
Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri retired from politics in February, and the Future Movement he runs has heeded his call not to run in the general election or to nominate anyone to stand for them.
Prominent Sunni politicians such as current Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Tammam Sallam and Fouad Siniora have also chosen not to run. Some have speculated that the return of the Saudi and Kuwaiti ambassadors to Lebanon and the establishment of the Saudi-French fund for Lebanon is intended to bail the Sunni bloc out of its predicament.
Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid Al-Bukhari, Lebanese Armed Forces President Samir Geagea and former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora have all worked to prevent a Sunni boycott of the elections. They are joined by the chief mufti of the Lebanese Sunni community, Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian, who in an Eid al-Fitr sermon warned of “the danger of not voting and the risk of the corrupt being elected.”
“The elections are an opportunity we have to bring about change,” he said.
Hoda Rizk, a professor of politics at Lebanese University, finds the Sunni electoral situation worrying. “This is the first time in Lebanon’s history that Sunni voting rights have been disabled. None of the senior Sunni figures are leading election campaigns. The reason is the Saudi stance towards former Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri, and this has adversely affected the Sunni political front and led to a fragmentation of Sunni voices,” she said.
There are no other major Sunni figures to fill the vacuum, and choosing Geagea as the Sunni lead candidate was a mistake, she added. “If he is popular with Christian voters, he lacks that popularity with Sunni voters,” she said
It all boils down to weakening the Sunni position and status of prime minister, a position reserved in the Lebanese system for a Sunni Muslim. The Taif Accords, which shaped Lebanon’s sectarian system, gives this position greater powers than the presidency reserved for a Maronite Christian.
Sunni public opinion is in a state of shock and despair and lacks a compass, Rizk said. She believes that channeling Sunni votes behind the courts of the Lebanese armed forces risks pitting Sunnis against Shias and setting the two on a civil war trajectory because it marginalizes Sunnis who support the policies of certain countries supporting Iran are hostile, do not support.
No Arab project has ever managed to bring the Sunnis in Lebanon into a homogeneous political current, although they showed overwhelming support for Nasserism and Arab nationalism and for the Palestinian resistance in the 1950s, until the former chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat, and his Fatah movement were forced to leave Lebanon in 1982.
Shortly after the end of the Lebanese civil war and the Taif Accords in 1989, Rafik Al-Hariri emerged as a strong and charismatic Sunni leader until his assassination in 2005. Others like Siniora, Tammam Sallam, Mikati and Saad Al-Hariri have tried to fill in his footsteps but failed.
Yet, as Rizk points out, they have all avoided reaching an open confrontation with Hezbollah lest Lebanon be plunged back into civil war. The same is true of Hezbollah, she said, which also has lines in place to prevent a slide into a civil war that she knows will come to an end.
*A version of this article will appear in print in the May 12, 2022 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly.