Disillusioned Lebanese lose faith in politicians ahead of poll

The last time Lebanon held parliamentary elections, in 2018, Nour’s monthly salary was around $1,000. But as the country heads for another vote, the value of the bank clerk’s paycheck has plunged to $100 – the result of a financial meltdown she and many others blame on the very politicians who are seeking re-election.

“It was the politicians we voted for who got us into this situation,” she said. “Now I worry if I have to go to the supermarket or the pharmacy.”

Battered by hyperinflation, power cuts and failing services, many Lebanese are angry at politicians they accuse of plundering the country and destroying its economy and have little confidence that their situation will improve after the elections. this year’s legislative elections in May.

On top of that, some fear that the collapse of the Sunni political bloc could lead to a vacuum that would further strengthen Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite group considered the most formidable military and political force in Lebanon.

As part of the country’s sectarian system, Sunnis provide the country’s prime minister, but Saad al-Hariri, the three-time prime minister, retired from politics in January and announced that his Future Movement, the main party Sunni, would boycott the election. He said he was convinced that “there is no room for a positive opportunity for Lebanon in light of Iranian influence, international disarray, national division, bigotry and the collapse of the state”.

A Sunni boycott of the poll carries risks.

“There is certainly a risk of imbalance [of power]said Fouad Siniora, a former Future Movement prime minister who opposes the boycott. “An effort must be made because ultimately it is not acceptable for Lebanon to fall completely into the hands of the Iranians and Hezbollah. It is not in the interest of the Lebanese, Christians, Muslims, Arabs or the world.

Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora says he opposes a Sunni boycott of the election as it would play into Iran and Hezbollah’s hands © Oliver Marsden/FT

As the May polls approach, Sunni leaders are trying to find ways to ensure community representation. Ahmed Fatfat, a former minister, said there were 27 assembly seats allocated to Sunnis and a search was underway for credible candidates. The fear, he said, was that some of those seats would go to Sunnis allied with Hezbollah, tipping the balance even further towards the Shia group. One option under consideration, he said, was for Future Movement candidates to run as independents.

“We are not expecting miracles from these elections,” he said. “The fundamental fact now is that for any progress to happen, we have to build the state. But it will be in the shadow of the weapons of Hezbollah that it has already used [against domestic rivals] and which could still make the results of the elections meaningless.

Hezbollah and its allies of the Free Patriotic Movement party of Michel Aoun, the Maronite Christian president, have the majority in the current assembly. The group’s growing influence has led to strained ties between Beirut and Sunni Gulf countries, which once backed the Sunni camp and spent billions in Lebanon to counter Iranian influence. As a condition for repairing the current divide, the Gulf countries demanded in January that the Lebanese authorities disarm Hezbollah, a decision most consider unrealistic.

“This [the attempt to disarm them] would be a recipe for a civil war in which Hezbollah would be the last survivor,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “They [the Gulf states] wash their hands of Lebanon as an Iranian outpost, but what is their plan B? It’s short-sighted because everything that happens in Lebanon will come back to bite you.

The country’s economy has contracted since the eruption of its crippling fiscal and banking crisis in 2019 plunged three-quarters of the population into poverty. Another devastating shock came in 2020 when a massive explosion of improperly stored chemicals in Beirut’s port killed more than 200 people and shredded swaths of the city. No senior official has been held accountable because powerful political factions obstructed an investigation.

Lebanon’s overlapping economic and political crises will likely encourage those who vote to rally more closely to traditional sectarian leaders, including some who earned a reputation as warlords during the civil war that ended in 1990. , according to analysts.

“Many people faced with the country’s collapse will turn to former warlords or anyone who can provide protection or services,” said Emile Hokayem, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. .

At best, he and others say, the poll could help boost the small number of reform-minded opposition politicians. Yahya highlighted the efforts of civil society groups to support the new candidates. “But it’s still not an organized opposition, still in disarray and not politically mature,” she warned.

Kulluna Irada is one such group and hopes to run in all 15 constituencies. “What we want is to be able to say there are new people in parliament, a new interfaith bloc and who is here to stay so that you faith leaders can no longer say you represent your communities” , said Diana Menhem, Managing Director. .

Whether that will be enough to convince voters like Nour to go to the polls is unclear. “I will not vote in the next election or I will vote blank,” she said.

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