Voters are set to go to the polls in Lebanon on Sunday despite pressure for postponement due to threats of violence and shortage of funds for the parliamentary election.
Nearly four million residing in the crisis-ridden country and 195,000 living abroad are registered to choose 128 deputies from among 718 candidates.
Expectations are low. Former prime minister Tammam Salam told The Irish Times: “The promise of change that was promoted some time ago, especially by the western world, that the democratic exercise of elections is the venue for change is not happening, unfortunately. Certainly, we have our democratic constitution to abide by, but nobody is abiding by [it] when it comes to practice.
“We might have some surprises as there are in every election,” he said, “but the electoral law doesn’t allow change”.
He said elections are in the grip of the traditional political establishment. If 10-20 seats are won by newcomers, “that will get nowhere in the 128-seat parliament. The required change would need more.”
There is little enthusiasm among voters for returning to the polls. Turnout is expected to be lower than the 49 per cent in 2018. Unless candidates provide voters in major urban centres with bus transport or expensive petrol, many cannot afford to make the journey to their natal villages where they have to cast ballots.
On the logistical front, the 10-member election commission is not independent and relies on government funding. The budget for this election is $129,000, 60 per cent of the amount requested. This could disrupt the flow of electricity to polling and counting stations.
Few Lebanese believe this election will reverse the desperate situation of the country by ending the rule of the political elite which is accused of destroying the country.
While poster portraits of candidates sprout on walls and slogan-bearing banners stretch across streets, there is no ballyhoo. Lebanese are physically tired and morally spent after nearly three years of economic hardship and political stasis.
A banner bearing the picture of former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri hangs alongside a building in the Tariq al-Jdideh neighbourhood of the capital Beirut, Photograph: Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images
Most Lebanese do not believe there will be a free and fair result. Wealthy veteran politicians have been accused of spending more than limits allow and buying votes on election day has been standard practice. Newcomers and independents are unable to offer cash or distribute food, fuel and medications to desperate voters at a time when 80 per cent of Lebanese live below the poverty line.
Opposition candidates have claimed powerful factions’ supporters have disrupted rallies, attacked campaign workers, intimidated staff on social media, and vandalised posters and billboards.
Since this is the first election after the October 2019 uprising against the entrenched elite and economic meltdown, many Lebanese had placed their hopes on the “thawra” activists of the “revolution”. It swept the country demanding an end to the sectarian system of governance requiring the president to be Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shia.
Instead of forging a united front to challenge the status quo, thawra activists have mounted competing campaigns and promoted their own agendas.
Popular resentment has soared due to the August 2020 explosion at Beirut port which killed 219 people, wounded 6,000 and rendered 300,000 homeless. The official investigation has been stalled by those responsible for allowing the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate to be stored unsafely in an unsecured warehouse for six years.
Among the six major parties, the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces headed by ex-warlord Samir Geagea is likely to gain seats at the expense of the Free Patriotic Movement, founded by President Michel Aoun.
Shia Hizbullah’s disciplined cadres can be relied on to vote for its candidates but some supporters of Hizbullah’s partner, Amal, headed by parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, could defect or abstain.
He will have to form a credible cabinet capable of securing the adoption of the 2022 budget and carrying out financial reforms to convince the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to release $3 billion (€2.8 billion) in financial aid, thereby opening the door for the delivery of $11 billion (€10.5 billion) agreed in Paris in 2018 by international donors and further IMF finance to rescue the country.