The brutal economic crisis, the discredit of the political class and the lack of confidence in the elections as an engine of change are conjured up this Sunday in the legislative elections in Lebanon. The appointment at the polls is to renew the 128 seats of its Parliament, but with little chance that the situation will improve for the average Lebanese. The general feeling is that nothing is going to change with these elections.
The ‘country of cedars’ goes to the polls for the first time since it sank into the economic and social crisis that has plagued it since the end of 2019. That October, an explosion of massive popular protests demanded the departure of the political caste, to the one that blamed the fall to hell of the Mediterranean nation due to its negligence and corruption. The situation worsened after the gigantic explosion in the port of Beirut, which left more than 200 dead, 6,000 injured -many with lifelong consequences-, 350,000 homeless and a devastated city.
It is one of the three worst crises of the last 150 years, according to the World Bank. The Lebanese pound, which has maintained an artificial parity with the dollar since the civil war, has lost 90% of its value since 2019. The banks have imposed a corralito that has left thousands of people without access to their savings. 80% of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the UN. The State is unable to provide basic services to the population, which lives between constant power outages and intermittent cycles of shortages of gasoline, medicine and basic food.
The United Nations accused this week the Government and the Central Bank of Lebanon of causing this situation, in what is the worst economic, social and political cycle since the civil war (1975-1991). “The economic crisis could have been avoided, it was caused by erroneous government policies […] and a huge public debt that will condemn the Lebanese for several generations,” criticized a report by the special rapporteur for Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, Olivier of Schutter.
In this scenario, few changes can bring about legislative elections that are expected to repeat the same pattern of power sharing and clientelism. One reason is that in this nation where 18 religious communities coexist, there are established quotas for all institutions. The other is that the same faces are presented, with the exception of Saad Hariri, a three-time former prime minister and leader of the most influential party in the Sunni community. Hariri announced last January his withdrawal from political life and demanded that the members of his party, the Future Movement, boycott these elections. They have done so, following the unwritten rules in Lebanon of obedience to the warlords. As a result, the Sunnis of the once thriving Hariri saga will be diluted in the hemicycle.
Although it had not been one of the majority parties for a long time and had been losing prestige, Future had 13 deputies in the Parliament that came out of the polls in 2018. Hariri’s absence is very symbolic in these elections. After being forced to resign as ‘premier’ in the face of the October 2019 demonstrations, he returned to the post months after the Beirut explosion and failed in his attempt to form a stable government. His political withdrawal could be read as a victory for the society that he charged against the politicians who rise to power. But today, no other leader has followed his path.
The Maronite Christian party Free Patriotic Movement was the largest group in the Palace of the Great Seraglio, the seat of the Legislative, and experts predict that it will maintain its numbers. As well as their allies, the Shia Hezbollah and Amal. The three will lead, as in the past, the springs of power. His association raised Michel Aoun to the Presidency.
In the opposing ideological camp are the Lebanese Forces of the Christian Samir Geagea, archenemy of Aoun and Hezbollah, and the Progressive Socialist Party of the Druze Walid Jumbulat. His opposition to the Aoun-Hizbullah-Amal axis will be weakened without Hariri. Added to them are the citizen political movements formed after the social effervescence of 2019 and 2020, with proposals for renewal but in conflict with each other, which has made them lose strength in the eyes of voters as an alternative bet.
“It’s hard to think that the revolution was for nothing,” laments Wisam Musa, a 30-year-old computer engineer from Tripoli who rules out traveling there from Beirut to cast a blank ballot. “It’s useless,” he tells the online media ‘Now Lebanon’. The field of abstention is fertile ground. Although the participation of the Lebanese diaspora in the world -which is three times the population living in the country- has already been accounted for at 60%, optimism is moderate. 43.55% expected not to go to the polls, according to a forecast by the NGO Oxfam on electoral participation, considering that there are no “promising candidates.”
“The elections will put an end to what began in October 2019 and will reproduce power by giving it internal and international legitimacy,” Rima Majed, professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut, predicts for AFP.
The Parliament that results from the polls faces three challenges that may give rise to new political impasses as of its entry into office on May 21. One will be that the renewal of the Chamber has to lead to a new government, with the problems that this entails in the fragmented country. One option to get around them would be to re-entrust it to Nayib Mikati, the current prime minister. Although that collides with the desire for political renewal.
The hemicycle also has to elect its president, which according to the quota system is a position that falls to the Shia community – the prime minister must be Sunni and the president, a Christian. The outgoing Speaker of Parliament is Nabih Berri, who has been in the post continuously since 1992. Removing him from there will raise new problems of consensus.
The third short-term political challenge is the election of a new president. The current head of state’s mandate expires on October 31. “If a new president is installed on November 1 in the Baabda palace, the government will be forced to resign,” Scarlett Haddad decrypts in the newspaper ‘L’Orient-Le Jour’. For this reason, some experts estimate that there will be no new government until the presidential election, but others defend that the country cannot afford months of political blockade again. It remains to resolve the economic crisis, negotiate with the IMF, put into practice the reforms demanded by the international community to unblock the millionaire aid… The roads lead, once again, to Mikati. He has already said that he is ready to continue as prime minister.
For all these reasons, Professor Rima Majed does not think “that there will be a change in the political scene” after the elections. “The misery inflicted on the population can be reversed with a leadership that puts social justice, transparency and responsibility at the center of its actions,” proposed UN rapporteur De Schutter. Without renewing its political class, Lebanon will emerge from these elections more polarized and impoverished.
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