Elections in Lebanon should entrench the ‘status quo’

Sunday’s Lebanese elections are unlikely to bring 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 “replicate 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.

Photo: EPA-EFE

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.

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

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.

“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 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.

Polling expert Kamal Feghali said many voters had hoped the newcomers would come forward “with a unified list and platform”, but instead their competing voter lists will “scatter the vote”.

While independents are expected to do slightly better than in 2018, when just one of them won a seat, the overall vote is once again likely to favor Hezbollah, Lebanon’s largest political and military force, and his allies, Feghali said.

Iran-backed Hezbollah, first formed as a resistance force against 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, adding that such behavior signals to voters “that change could be refused, and in turn could lead to either reduced turnout or distortion. electoral behavior”.

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