In Lebanon, elections bring cautious hope – and an uphill battle for reform

On May 15, Lebanese voters will go to the polls for the legislative elections while members of the Lebanese diaspora voted last weekend. The contest comes at a time of deep economic crisis and government collapse in the country, but is unlikely to bring about significant change in a dysfunctional political establishment.

These elections will be the first since the outbreak of major anti-government protests in October 2019. Frustrated by deteriorating public services, economic mismanagement and corruption, Lebanese residents have taken to the streets to call for an overhaul of the political system. Yet conditions only worsened over the following years, punctuated by a devastating chemical explosion in August 2020 in the port of Beirut that was attributed to gross government negligence.

Public outrage has emboldened independent and opposition parties, while galvanizing members of the Lebanese diaspora – who outnumber the resident population at least three times – to register to vote on an unprecedented scale. Polls have already shown diaspora voter turnout nearing 60%, with well over twice as many expats taking part in this election compared to 2018.

Nevertheless, the establishment parties presided over a long period of democratic decline, ensuring that the odds were stacked against all opponents of the establishment order. Even if the new opposition forces succeed at the polls, it is clear that repairing the damage caused by years of mismanagement will require careful reform.

A decade of democratic decline

The decay of Lebanon’s democratic institutions has been simmering for years, creating a daunting array of challenges for any reform effort. According to Freedom House’s latest findings freedom in the world report, freedom has steadily declined in Lebanon over the past decade. Political rights have been undermined by endemic corruption within the ruling elites, which in turn has pushed the country to the brink of state failure and exposed it to a wave of interference from foreign actors, including the Iranian regime.

The same ruling elites worked to reduce opportunities for genuine political opposition. For example, despite a 2017 electoral law that was supposed to improve political representation, established sectarian parties were able to maintain and even strengthen their grip on power in the 2018 elections. These groups notably profited from political gerrymandering, used propaganda and intimidated to frame opposition groups and promised preferential access to material benefits – from humanitarian aid to money to civil service jobs – to their supporters in a sophisticated system of clientelism. Allegations of vote-buying were widespread during the 2018 election, and concerns have emerged about the practice repeating itself this year.

Civil liberties in Lebanon have also declined over the past decade. The proliferation of pro-government or partisan news outlets and increased attacks on critical journalists have tarnished the country’s reputation as a hub for free expression in the region. In recent years, internet freedom has deteriorated as partisan trolls spread misinformation and target critics with online harassment and smear campaigns. In an information ecosystem that already lacked diversity, deliberate attempts to manipulate information around elections could undermine trust in the electoral system and complicate voters’ efforts to make informed choices at the polls.

The economic crisis, which collapsed the main pillars of Lebanon’s post-civil war economy, looms large in the context of the elections. Basic public services are scarce and skilled Lebanese are leaving the country in droves. The election outcome will have lasting implications for the Lebanese economy and experts believe that the Lebanese economic model is in dire need of restructuring. Meanwhile, a deal with the IMF or aid packages from foreign actors like Iran could be the quickest methods for Lebanon to reverse its financial meltdown – but many of these potential bailouts are tied to reform commitments. Overall, access to these financial resources and the conditions attached to them will be determined by the results of the elections and the consequences of the vote, including whether political leaders and their constituents accept the results.

The fierce battle for independent parties

At stake on May 15 are the 128 seats of the Lebanese National Assembly, whose independent and opposition candidates were largely excluded in previous elections. A victory this time is still unlikely – but not impossible.

Two major blocs have dominated Lebanese politics for almost two decades. The March 14 Alliance – led by the Lebanese Forces, Future Movement and Kataeb political parties – was formed in 2005 to oppose Syrian political influence and has since evolved into an anti-Iranian bloc made up largely of part of Sunni Muslims and their Christian allies. The rival pro-Syrian March 8 Alliance, led by Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement, has become a pro-Iranian bloc dominated by Shia Muslims and their own Christian allies. These alliances have each benefited from electoral laws that favor traditional sectarian leaders and effectively reinforce a polarized status quo.

But both alliances have faced setbacks in recent months. In January, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced that he would not run as a Future Movement candidate, arguing that Iranian influence left no room for positive political change. In March, current Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced he would not stand for re-election, adding to concerns about a vacuum in Lebanon’s Sunni leadership.

The Shia-led March 8 bloc has also faced challenges over the past year that could hurt its chances at the polls. Support for the Free Patriotic Movement plummeted after Gebran Bassil – the party leader – was popularly pilloried during the 2019 protests; it fell further when Bassil crippled the government’s reform efforts following the Beirut port explosion. Public distrust of Hezbollah has become widespread since the group threatened a judge investigating the blast, contributing to violent clashes last October.

Fractures and scandals within these established political blocs could help independent parties win additional parliamentary seats in all electoral constituencies. Members of the Lebanese diaspora, especially those who had never shown an interest in voting in the past, could also influence the outcome: the number of diaspora voters who voted in the 2022 elections is well over double the figure from the 2018 elections. Many of these voters left Lebanon specifically because of the failures of the establishment, and their participation could tip the results in favor of new parties.

An opportunity to turn the tide

Flawed as they are, Lebanon’s remaining democratic institutions still offer voters and politicians a chance to lift the country out of its long decline.

The first step is to ensure that these elections go ahead as planned, despite calls from major political blocs to delay the ballot. Moreover, independent and opposition parties must be allowed to participate meaningfully in the contest, and polling stations must be safe and neutral, free from the domination and coercion of political party agents that have characterized recent national elections. Finally, media freedom must be respected before, during and after voting to ensure that those following the election can access reliable information about the contest and its results.

But regardless of the election outcome, the new National Assembly will need to take immediate steps to bolster the country’s badly damaged democracy, in part by strengthening safeguards against political corruption and protections for free speech. The economic crisis, which has deeply degraded the dignity and fundamental human rights of the Lebanese people, must also be addressed. These efforts, whether through an IMF bailout or other financial assistance programs, must not interfere with the integrity of the election. However, given the multi-pronged challenges facing the country, it will inevitably take more than the introduction of a new assembly of legislators to lift Lebanon out of misery.

Image: Members of the Lebanese Election Observation Association monitor the voting process through screens at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beirut on May 6, 2022. – Lebanese expats vote for the legislative elections, two years after a crisis unprecedented economy that caused a mass exodus. It is the second time in the country’s history that citizens residing abroad can vote for their 128 representatives, in elections to be held at home on May 15. in nine Arab countries and Iran, while the rest will vote on Sunday in 48 other countries. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)
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