Mired in collapse, Lebanese vote for new parliament

Publish: 7:03 PM, May 15, 2022 | Update: 7:03:PM, May 15, 2022
People line up to vote during parliamentary elections in Beirut, Lebanon Sunday, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Lebanese voted for a new parliament Sunday against the backdrop of an economic meltdown that is transforming the country and low expectations that the election would significantly alter the political landscape.

A new crop of candidates from the 2019 protest movement are running against the country’s entrenched ruling class that is blamed for the collapse, hoping to unseat them. But they are divided and lack the money, experience and other advantages held by traditional political rulers with a decades-long grip on power.

People began casting their ballots shortly after the polls opened under the watchful eye of security forces that have fanned out across the country. Sunday’s vote is the first since Lebanon’s implosion started in October 2019, triggering widespread anti-government protests.

It is also the first election since the massive August 2020 explosion at Beirut’s port that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts of Lebanon’s capital. The blast, widely blamed on negligence, was set off by hundreds of tons of poorly stored ammonium nitrate that ignited in a port warehouse after a fire broke out at the facility.

Sunday’s voting is seen as a last chance to reverse course and punish the current crop of politicians, most of whom derive their power from Lebanon’s sectarian political system and spoils taken at the end of its 15-year civil war in 1990. But expectations for real change were low amid skepticism and widespread resignation that the vote was sure to bring back the same powerful political parties.

“I did what I can do and I know the situation will not change 180 degrees,” said Rabah Abbas, 74, after casting his ballot in Beirut. He fears the vote is only symbolic and that Lebanon will be stuck again in post-election political bickering over the formation of a new government and electing a new president in October.

“We will hit a wall again. Lebanon is a hopeless case,” he said, echoing common sentiment. Polls close at 7 p.m. local time (1600 GMT) and official results were expected Monday.

The extent of Lebanon’s collapse was on full display Sunday. In the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s most impoverished city, several polling stations were without electricity and voters had to climb several flights of stairs to cast their ballots. Voters were seen using the light from their mobile phones to check names and lists before casting their ballot.

Mirvat Dimashkieh, 55, a housewife, said she is voting for change and for the “new faces” running, adding that longtime politicians should step aside.

“They should give a chance to others. Enough theft,” she said.

Mainstream political parties and politicians remained strong going into the vote, while opposition figures and civil society activists hoping to unseat them are fractured. Lebanese parties have long relied on a system that encourages voters to cast ballots in return for favors and individual benefits.

Money flowed, with political parties offering cash bribes, sandwiches, transportation and other favors to voters.

Since the meltdown began, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, the Lebanese pound has shed most more than 90% of its value and many have left the country seeking opportunities abroad. Three quarters of the country’s 6 million people, including 1 million Syrian refugees, now live in poverty.

The World Bank has described Lebanon’s collapse as one of the world’s worst in the past 150 years.

Some 718 candidates on 103 lists are running for seats in the 128-member parliament. The vote is held once every four years. In 2018, voters gave the powerful Hezbollah and its allies the majority with 71 seats.

Lebanon has more than 3.5 million eligible voters, many of whom will cast their ballots in its 15 electoral districts.

Western-backed mainstream parties are hoping to strip the parliamentary majority from Hezbollah, while many independents are hoping to break through traditional party lists and candidates.

Reflecting the tensions, fistfights broke out between Hezbollah supporters and those of the Saudi-backed Christian Lebanese Forces party, which has been among the most vocal critics of the Iran-armed group.

The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections said its delegates were forced to withdraw from two polling stations following threats by Hezbollah supporters and their allies of the Shiite Amal group.

The vote this year comes as the main Sunni political leader, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, suspended his work in politics and called for a Sunni boycott. Some have warned this may help Hezbollah’s Sunni allies to win more seats.

In a sign of how political allegiances often take precedent in Lebanon, Qassim Shtouni, 71, drove all the way from his village in southern Lebanon to Beirut to vote. He said he chose an alliance consisting of several mainstream groups including Hezbollah, President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and the Amal group of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Sitting on a plastic chair outside a polling station, Shtouni said the main reason he voted for a Hezbollah-led alliance is “because my vote will be against normalization with Israel.” He noted recent agreements between Israel and Gulf Arab countries.

“The elections in Lebanon today are not local elections. They are international elections,” he said, referring to the political battle between Iran-backed groups and pro-West factions.

After the election results are out, the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati will become a caretaker Cabinet until the president calls for consultations with the new parliament members, who will choose the next premier.

The new parliament will also elect a new head of state after President Michel Aoun’s six-year term expires at the end of October.

Lebanon’s parliament and Cabinet seats are equally divided between Muslims and Christians under the constitution that was drafted shortly before the civil war ended.