Lebanon is in a political crisis. Sunday’s elections won’t change that.

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Lebanon’s general election on Sunday presents the possibility of a change – albeit minor – in the corruption, neglect and stagnation that have crashed the country’s economy, allowed relative impunity for Beirut’s devastating port explosion in 2020, and empowered the extremist group have enabled Hezbollah to have a larger share of seats in the legislature.

Sunday’s voter turnout in Lebanon could top 60 percent, a 10 percent increase from the figures for the 2018 general election. Coupled with the high turnout of the Lebanese diaspora in places like Dubai and Paris, this could be the case, according to Osama Gharizi, senior program adviser for the Middle East and the North, mean opposition groups get up to 10 seats in the 128-seat parliament Africa Center at the US Institute for Peace. “A sharp surge in voters here would probably drive a large segment of new factions into parliament for the first time on Sunday,” Gharizi, who lives in Beirut, told Vox via email. “The acute economic and government crises that have plagued the country since 2019 should mean a higher voter turnout than in 2018, which was close to 50 percent.”

These crises include rampant inflation and high levels of poverty — according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, more than 80 percent of the country’s 6.8 million people now live in some form of poverty, as measured by twenty different indicators, such as that access to sanitation, health insurance and school attendance, and financial metrics such as income and wealth. Lebanon‘s financial decentralization has taken years. Huge debt levels due to financial mismanagement under central bank governor Riyadh Salameh, as well as the withdrawal of Saudi support due to the increasing influence of Hezbollah and Iran, and a political unwillingness to implement reforms in exchange for foreign aid all contributed to the economy’s implosion.

Lebanese, fed up with the government’s response to the economic crisis it has caused, began protesting on October 17, 2019; a planned tax on the WhatsApp messaging service was the last straw. They called for the resignation of the entire government, chanted “everyone means all”, occupied many of the iconic but still bullet-scarred buildings in downtown Beirut and demanded an end to the sectarian divisions that pitted the populace against one another while enriching the political sphere elites and keep them in power.

However, the emergence of the Covid-19 virus dampened the momentum of the protests, leading up to the Beirut port blast in August 2020, which killed at least 218 people, injured more than 7,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands. Independent investigations and many Lebanese claim that political negligence is responsible for the blast; Government officials failed to properly store the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that exploded after an eruption at the warehouse where it was stored. As a result, the neighbors provided each other with food, delivered medicines and organized repairs at home. The government was nowhere to be found because officials had resigned en masse. Almost two years later, there is still no justice for the citizens of Beirut as politicians dropped two consecutive investigations.

Lebanon’s government structure does not make political change easy

The Lebanese Parliament has a four-year term and is split between Muslim and Christian seats along religious lines; Although there is religious diversity in Lebanon, religious minorities such as the Druze must fit into either the Muslim or Christian constituency and are given seats in proportion to their population. Executive offices are always held by one of the 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 confessional system, which has existed in some form throughout Lebanon’s modern history, was codified into law in the 1989 Taif Accords, which set the terms for ending the 15-year civil war.

The sectarian division of political offices was ostensibly intended to preserve peace between religious groups after the brutal civil war, but it has also perpetuated corrupt political dynasties and allowed impunity for kleptocratic actors who have allegedly used the fragile country’s assets as their own personal coffers. The Taif Accords also give the president sweeping powers, allowing them to sack the prime minister and cabinet and dissolve parliament, creating the conditions of abuse of power and nepotism that have long plagued Lebanese politics.

As Gharizi told Vox, “Lebanon’s electoral system is distorted [in] favor of the traditional governing parties. This shouldn’t be too surprising since they are the ones who developed it in 2017. It is based on proportional representation (PR) and was first used in the 2018 election.” While some civil society groups supported the change because it could allow candidates from non-traditional groups to participate in government, he said: “The traditional governing parties have Details inserted into the electoral system that essentially negate the benefits,” including a preferential vote for one person within a coalition, which Gharizi says helps “secure the election of traditional leaders.”

Furthermore, the electoral districts “coincide with the constituencies of traditional ruling parties” – theoretically paralleling US gerrymandering – and the Lebanese electoral tradition dictates that people vote in their ancestral villages, which, according to Gharizi, “prevents the emergence of a strong concentration of opposition circles”.

Because Lebanon’s economic problems are so intertwined with the widely acknowledged corruption of political elites, the status quo cannot change until political institutions do. That kind of change appeared to be on the horizon when Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim politician, former prime minister and scion of the Hariri political dynasty, announced his retirement from politics last January and urged his supporters to boycott the election. The younger Hariri, who took office after the assassination of his father Rafik in 2005 while he was prime minister, is perhaps best known internationally for giving millions of dollars to a young South African model between tenures as prime minister. Hariri, who resigned as prime minister during the 2019 protests, was then appointed to an executive role by President Michel Aoun in October 2020; He resigned again nine months later, unable to form a new government.

While Hariri’s withdrawal from politics risked further stagnation and confusion, it was also a sort of acknowledgment that Lebanese society had suffered under his leadership and the leadership of his political class – and Hariri and his ilk did nothing to stop it.

Can Sunday’s vote make any headway?

No election will bring about the sweeping change that Lebanon needs and that the Lebanese people have been demanding for years. While acknowledging the anger and frustration felt by most Lebanese, Gharizi also told Vox that “the clientele and patron networks of the traditional ruling parties run deep, meaning many are still reliant and have become increasingly dependent in the face of the current economic crisis. the size of parties for basic needs.” This dependency “ensures that traditional governing parties can mobilize their supporters for the elections more easily than up-and-coming opposition newcomers, thereby guaranteeing a degree of control and influence in the next parliament and government,” said he.

This means that although Hariri’s Future Movement party did not field candidates, other traditional political interest groups did, including the Shia Hezbollah movement, which held 71 parliamentary seats before the election and whose supporters reportedly threatened election observers from the Lebanese Association for Democrats. But other traditional parties have also resorted to unsavory methods to secure victory, according to Gharizi.

“Traditional ruling parties have reverted to tried and tested campaign strategies hidden in fear, sectarian rhetoric and clientelism to mobilize voters,” he said. “Oppositional groups are portrayed by the ruling parties as either supported and funded by traditional rivals or international actors, or as too weak to protect the community from the ‘other.'”

Ultimately, any change for Lebanon will come from independent leaders detached from the leadership that has held the country in a stranglehold for decades. But the opposition movement is new, unaccustomed to political organizing and the development of platforms and strategies, while traditional parties have relied on their divisive sectarian messages, Gharizi said. But the fact that independent candidates took part in this election in any significant numbers at all “is in and of itself an important milestone in Lebanon’s political development and continues the gradual, long-term process of overhauling Lebanon’s anachronistic political system, which began with the events of October 2019,” according to Gharizi.

While emerging political actors have finally had the opportunity to campaign, a recent Oxfam report cites the “inability to present a coherent, strong political discourse that makes them a serious alternative to the current ruling elites” as a major one setback for these groups. In the absence of strong political platforms and meaningful coalitions — let alone campaign funding — the report warns that dissatisfaction with the ruling class is simply not enough to elect independent candidates, let alone dismantle the entire corrupt and divisive system.

Ultimately, the outcome of this critical election will depend on turnout, Gharizi told Vox. However, according to Sami Atallah, founding director and head of research at Beirut-based think tank The Policy Initiative, turnout at 6:30 p.m. local time was low — just 37.5 percent. “Surprisingly, while Sunnis were expected to boycott, Shia and Christian voters also had lower turnouts. High voter apathy”, he tweeted on Sunday.

Preliminary results should be available on Monday.

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