Thursday May 12, 2022

To the polls

To the polls

A Lebanese expat casts her vote in Doha, Qatar.

Lebanese are set to go to the polls on Sunday 15th to choose 128 members of their national assembly from among 718 candidates, including 155 women and 88 between the ages of 25 and 35. Nearly four million citizens residing in Lebanon and 195,000 from the world-wide diaspora are registered. Voting took place in 48 countries on May 6-8 for Lebanese living abroad. Lebanon is expected to go to the polls every four years but between 2009-2018 there was no election and there were predictions that this election might be postponed due to Lebanon’s multiple crises.

Lebanese view this election with trepidation and cynicism.  They fear violence could erupt between rival factions on polling day as well as when results are announced. Fifteen years of civil war (1975-90) have left older generations traumatised and the young determined to avoid conflict.

Despite teams of European election observers, Lebanese do not trust the powers-that-be to deliver a free and fair result.  Instead, they believe the political establishment will, once again, manipulate the process to ensure its tenuous survival.

Buying votes has been standard practice with prices rising in the afternoon and evening. New comers and independents are unlikely to be able to be able to offer cash or distribute food, fuel and medications, giving wealthy politicians a major advantage at a time 80 per cent of Lebanese live below the poverty line. Election Commissioner, Judge Nadim Abdelmalak told Reuters, “This is undoubtedly going to play a role. There are a lot of people who are going to sell their votes. These factors are going to hit the integrity and transparency of the elections.”

Opposition candidates accused supporters of powerful factions of disrupting rallies and intimidating and beating campaign workers. Paula Yacoubian a member of the outgoing parliament who is running for re-election complained that her billboards were vandalised in Beirut’s mainly Christian Achrafieh district while staff contacting voters on social media have been threatened.

The commission, which has 10 members, is not independent and relies on the government for funds. The budget for this election is about $129,000, 60 per cent of the amount requested. Abdelmalak’s salary is the equivalent of $350 a month, his colleagues receive $300, as the value of the Lebanese currency has fallen by 90 per cent since 2019. While commission members have provided their office supplies, the UN Development Programme has trained 30 observers and donated monitoring equipment.

Since the ruling political elite is accused of mismanagement, corruption and precipitating the country’s deepening economic crisis, few believe this election will engender change. The slide will continue and the already dire politico-economic situation will become worse. Turn-out is expected to be lower than in the 2018 election when only 49 per cent of registered voters cast ballots. Since petrol is in short supply and expensive many Lebanese who live in the main cities cannot afford to make the journey to their natal villages where they are registered to vote unless inducements include fuel as well as other essential items.

This is the first election after the October 2019 uprising against deteriorating economic conditions and many Lebanese placed their hopes on the “thawra,” the “revolution,” which swept the country calling for an end to the sectarian system of government installed by France ahead of independence in 1943. According to this model, the president must be a Maronite Catholic Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shia.

This vote is also taking place against the background of the August 2020 explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in Beirut port which killed 219 people, wounded 6,000 and rendered 300,000 homeless. Most Lebanese resent the fact that the official probe into the blast has been undermined and stalled by politicians and administrators who were responsible for allowing this volatile cargo to be stored unsafely in a unsecured warehouse for six years.

The country’s unchecked economic decline, rising poverty, and the failure to secure accountability for the blast should have benefitted “thawra” activist groups but they were too diverse and wedded to competing agendas to forge a common front. Consequently, they cannot challenge the political elite in order to punish those responsible for the country’s tragic state, which the World Bank called one of the top three economic crises of the last century and a half.

Among the six main parties, the party expected to increase its seats is the Lebanese Forces headed by ex-warlord Samir Geagea. The Free Patriotic Movement led by deeply unpopular Gibran Basil, son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, is likely to lose seats.

Shia Hizbollah’s disciplined backers can be relied on to vote, enabling the party to retain the dozen seats it held in the two previous elections but supporters of Hezbollah’s partner, Amal, headed by parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, may decide to abstain or defect.

When former Prime Minister Saad Hariri decided to boycott the election and urged his Future Movement to follow suit, he deprived Sunnis of their only organised political grouping and seriously weakened the community which is charged with providing a figure to head a government with enough backing to secure funds to rescue the collapsing economy and dysfunctional country.

To achieve this end, the new government must adopt the country’s 2022 budget and carry out specific financial reforms to convince the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to deliver an initial $3 billion in financial aid, thereby opening the door for $11 billion agreed in Paris in 2018 by international donors as well as further IMF funds.

Unfortunately, the post-election caretaker government under Najib Mikati will not have the authority to propose and implement essential reforms and due to sectarian horse-trading Lebanese government formation is painfully slow. It took Mikati 13 months to form his cabinet. Lebanon has no time to lose.

Photo: Reuters

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