Despite public anger, Lebanon vote set to entrench status quo


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Beirut (AFP) – Sunday’s Lebanese elections will not produce seismic change despite widespread dissatisfaction with a corrupt political class blamed for a painful economic crisis and deadly catastrophe, experts say.

Given Lebanon’s sectarian politics, it is likely to “reproduce the political class and give it internal and international legitimacy”, said Rima Majed of the American University of Beirut.

“Maybe opposition candidates will win seats, but I don’t think there will be a change in the political scene,” said Majed, an expert on sectarianism and social movements.

Beirut voter Issam Ayyad, 70, said more simply: “We cannot change”.

The small country’s political system has long distributed power among its religious communities, entrenching a ruling elite that has treated politics as a family affair.

By convention, the Lebanese president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia.

In the current parliament, the Shiite Hezbollah party and its allies, including the Free Christian Patriotic Movement, have the majority.

Little change is expected in Lebanon’s political system which has long distributed power among its religious communities, entrenching a ruling elite JOSEPH AID AFP

The system has hampered the emergence of non-sectarian political parties and representatives of civil society.

The elections will be the first since a youth-led protest movement erupted in October 2019 against a political class seen as inept, corrupt and responsible for a litany of woes, from power cuts to piles of uncollected rubbish. .

Anger exploded in months of street rallies but lost momentum when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, along with a financial crash that the World Bank called one of the world’s worst in modern times.

“loyalty game”

Popular fury erupted again after a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate that had languished in a Beirut port warehouse for years exploded in August 2020, killing more than 200 people and devastating entire neighborhoods.

Successive governments since have failed to chart a path out of Lebanon’s worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war that sparked runaway inflation, deepened misery and fueled a mass exodus.

Where the Lebanese state has failed to deliver basic services, traditional political leaders have tended to step in with their decades-old networks of patronage – a trend more alive than ever during the current crisis.

The elections will be the first since a youth-led protest movement erupted in October 2019 against a political class seen as inept and corrupt
The elections will be the first since a youth-led protest movement erupted in October 2019 against a political class seen as inept and corrupt JOSEPH AID AFP

“Elections are not meant to assess the performance of politicians,” Majed said. “They’re more of a game of loyalty to whoever provides…the most basic services.”

Public sector jobs have long been among the top giveaways, but now fuel and cash aid are also high on the list, giving established parties an advantage over new opposition groups that lack funding. funds and foreign support.

Although buoyed by the 2019 protest movement, the new independent candidates have also failed to build a cohesive front that could energize a dispirited electorate, observers say.

Almost 44% of eligible voters plan to abstain, according to a poll last month of more than 4,600 voters by British charity Oxfam.

Intimidation of voters

Polling expert Kamal Feghali said many voters had hoped the newcomers would show up ‘with a unified list and platform’ but said instead their competing voter lists ‘will disperse the vote’ .

While the independents are likely to do slightly better than in 2018, when only one of them won a seat, Feghali said, the winner is likely to once again be Hezbollah, the largest political and military force. of Lebanon, and its allies.

Iran-backed Hezbollah, first formed as a resistance force against neighboring Israel, is now often portrayed as a state within a state that is all-powerful in areas under its control
Iran-backed Hezbollah, first formed as a resistance force against neighboring Israel, is now often portrayed as a state within a state that is all-powerful in areas under its control Mahmoud ZAYYAT AFP

Iran-backed Hezbollah, first formed as a resistance force against neighboring Israel, is now often portrayed as a state within a state that is all-powerful in areas under its control.

His pre-election intimidation tactics are “salient”, Oxfam said, warning that such behavior signals to voters “that change may be refused, and in turn could lead to either reduced turnout or a distortion of electoral behavior”.

In Lebanon’s eastern Beqaa Valley, three Shia candidates were running on an anti-Hezbollah list but withdrew last month, despite a legal deadline for doing so having expired.

The move stripped the anti-Hezbollah slate of essential Shia representation and was widely seen by local media following pressure from the powerful movement.

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