Lebanon vote seen as last chance in crisis-plagued nation

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A boy searches the trash for recyclables to resell for campaign posters for candidates for the upcoming parliamentary election in Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday, May 9, 2022. Given Lebanon’s devastating economic collapse, Sunday’s parliamentary election is seen as an opportunity to punish the current crop of politicians who have driven the country to the ground. Yet there is a sense of widespread apathy and cynicism, and many say it is futile to expect change. The Arabic text on the banners reads: “Melhem Riachi, Razi al-Haj, With you can, bottom, Ibrahim Kanaan the Free Patriotic Movement (Christian group), above.” (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

AP

In households all over Lebanon, it is likely that one or more relatives are planning to emigrate – if they can get a passport. Demand is high, but the bankrupt government has not paid the company contracted to issue or renew the documents.

Lebanese spend their days at the banks, waiting for the meager amounts they can withdraw that month. They install batteries and solar panels at great expense so that their families can survive the humid summer months without electricity from the grid.

They hunt for medicine and fuel and worry about their children’s next meal.

It is an economic collapse and Sunday’s parliamentary elections are seen as a last chance to change course and punish the current crop of politicians who have driven the Mediterranean nation to the bottom.

Instead, there is a widespread sense of apathy and pessimism, with most observers agreeing that the mood is unlikely to make much of a difference.

“Who should I vote for? The ones who stole my money, looted the country and exploded Beirut? Or that nobody who can’t agree on anything?” said Samir Fahd, a schoolteacher whose once comfortable income of about $3,400 a month is now worth the equivalent of $200.

He will stay at home on election day, he says.

The vote is the first since Lebanon’s implosion began in October 2019, sparking widespread anti-government protests against a corrupt ruling class that has existed since the country’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

They are also the first elections since the massive explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020 that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts of the Lebanese capital. The blast, widely attributed to negligence, was caused by hundreds of tons of poorly stored ammonium nitrate ignited in a dockside warehouse after a fire broke out at the facility.

Nearly two years later, there is still no answer as to what ignited the highly explosive material or why it had been there for years. A judicial inquiry has been shelved for months amid a flurry of legal challenges from politicians seeking to block the inquiry.

Today, huge billboards and posters of candidates line the highway along the still-destroyed harbor – a shocking sign of how political parties are still throwing money around while the country is bankrupt. At least two of the politicians wanted in connection with the investigation into the explosion are standing before parliament.

Michel Murr, son of a former defense minister and grandson of a longtime powerful MP ​​and minister, is also running for a seat in the assembly, though he acknowledged the apparent futility of the election. He said he didn’t run a campaign because he “didn’t want to mislead people by telling them I’ll do this and that” — promises he may not be able to keep.

“It seems almost impossible to imagine Lebanon voting for more of the same — and yet that seems to be the most likely outcome,” wrote Sam Heller, a Beirut-based analyst and fellow at Century International.

Fahd, the schoolteacher, believes it is futile to expect change in a system based on sectarianism and large-scale patronage that he believes is controlled by an entrenched mafia.

“Elections don’t change anything, it’s all a joke and they all come back whether we like it or not,” said the 54-year-old.

While staying at home, he said other members of his family plan to vote for the Christian Lebanese Armed Forces, a right-wing Christian civil war party believed to receive financial support from Saudi Arabia.

Some believe the party is best placed to stand up to the Shia Hezbollah group, which dominates politics in Lebanon. Hezbollah has the current parliamentary majority along with its allies, including the rival Christian faction of the Lebanese Armed Forces, founded by President Michel Aoun.

Heavily armed and backed by Iran, Hezbollah is expected to maintain or potentially strengthen that majority in Sunday’s vote, likely taking advantage of a vacuum in the Sunni leadership scene after former Prime Minister Saad Hariri stepped down from politics last year.

Many have traditionally chosen candidates based on family, sectarian or regional ties, and are wary of newcomers who they fear would be powerless to take on deep-seated politicians.

Lebanese parties have long relied on a system that encourages voters to vote in return for favors and individual benefits. Political parties provide protection, assistance, medical services and other needs – if you vote for them.

“They have the material resources they need to grant patronage and mobilize voters. And those voters, amid Lebanon’s economic collapse, are likely to depend even more on the clientelist generosity of politicians for their survival,” Heller wrote.

Many argue that people should vote for anyone outside the current ruling clique if there is any hope of change and recovery in Lebanon.

“What else do they have to do to us before we all vote against them?” posted Paul Naggear, father of one of the youngest victims of the explosion in the port of Beirut.

Lebanon’s demise is staggering. In just two and a half years, the majority of the once middle-income population has plunged into poverty, the national currency has collapsed and foreign reserves have dried up. The World Bank has described the crisis as one of the worst in the world in more than a century.

Tens of thousands have left the country, including nurses, professors, doctors and engineers. Last month, dozens of people drowned at sea after a boat carrying about 60 migrants capsized off the coast.

“Today the country stands as a ‘failing state’,” Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said in a report published this week after he visited Lebanon. He added that the country’s “political leadership is totally detached from reality.”

Many people say they are tired of the political class, but see no alternative.

“People are in survival mode, and that concern takes precedence over any other concern,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center. There is no serious opposition capable of charting a roadmap for redemption.

“This could explain why many will vote for the same political class,” she said, adding that the election could bring some changes to some parliamentary seats, but not the kind of change people really need.

Some of the newly formed political interest groups have tried to convince people to believe and vote in the process.

“It’s not a very hard choice, we’re dying a slow death,” Diana Meneem, a candidate from the Kulluna Irada advocacy group, said in a recent podcast. “Give someone new a chance this time.”

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