Parliamentary elections in Lebanon: Last hope for change

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A new parliament will be elected in Lebanon in mid-May. Many people hope for change. But it will not be easy for the opposition forces to assert themselves against the old power structures.

Pictures of the candidates are hanging all over the country

On May 15, a new parliament will be elected in Lebanon. It is the first election since the October 2019 protests and the massive explosion at the port of Beirut that reduced parts of the city to rubble and killed hundreds. “This election is very important for us,” said Amal Nassereddine. Except for one time, the 38-year-old says, she always handed in a blank ballot. “It was always clear that the corrupt political elite would be re-elected.” But this time, she hopes, will be different. “This election is our last hope for the beginning of political change.”

Amal Nassereddine lives about 20 minutes by car south of the capital Beirut. The doctor has both Lebanese and US citizenship. She does not want to leave the country with her husband and children. But she wishes to live in a country where one can afford to buy groceries, get medical help and fill up the car.

Amal Nassereddine also took part in the October 2019 protests

The old political class and its Supporters, she says, have nearly robbed the country for decades and are now unable to get it back on its feet as the economy is in dire straits.

Independent candidates on various lists

This has prompted Bahaa Dalal to run as a candidate in the upcoming election. “I feel it is my duty to stand up for my country and to stand up for the citizens. We are all suffering from an economic, educational and health crisis,” he says.

Along with other independent opposition campaigners, he has stood in the eastern constituency of Raschaya and West Bekaa. Back then, on October 17, 2019, Bahaa Dalal also took part in the protests against the government and hoped that something would change politically. “We want to continue on the path of this October Revolution, defending human rights and human dignity. And we want to give the poor and marginalized of this country a voice in Parliament.”

The list that says Bahaa Dalal (right): Sahlona wal Jabal

Bahaa Dalal is actually a teacher – and the rest of the time he campaigns, goes from door to door and meets the citizens at election events. He is certain that people want and need change.

One crisis follows the next

Indeed, the record of Lebanon's political elite is disastrous. The country faces a devastating economic crisis over mismanagement and corruption: the currency has lost 90 percent of its value, leading to hyperinflation and shortages of fuel, medicines and other essential commodities. Electricity is therefore hardly available, and the mobile network and the Internet are threatening to collapse next. And because Lebanon also has to import wheat, the war in Ukraine threatens to worsen the hunger crisis.

“The state isn't doing its job,” says Anna Fleischer, head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's office in Beirut. Not even passports can be issued at the moment because there are no new blank documents. In addition, for the past two years, those in power have been trying with all their might to prevent those responsible for the largest non-nuclear explosion in human history from being held accountable. Lebanon has long been known for a culture of impunity.

All the traditional parties are there – Saad Hariri is not

For a long time, many observers assumed that the parliamentary elections would be canceled. Because before the last elections in 2018, Parliament had put off voting for years. “It is important that the elections still take place and is seen as a litmus test for the democratic processes in Lebanon,” says Fleischer.

2018 was the last election in Lebanon

A total of 128 parliamentary seats are up for grabs in the elections. All the traditional parties in the country are running with their well-known leaders, including the Free Patriotic Movement, Amal, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Forces and also the Druze Progressive Socialist Party. But one will not be there this time, because former Prime Minister Saad Hariri has retired from politics. Saad Hariri – traditionally the head of the Sunnis in the country – has thus plunged his religious community into chaos. Even if some candidates will run on behalf of the Sunnis, this will inevitably lead to new alliances.

In order to guarantee the distribution of power in multi-confessional Lebanon, the various religious groups agreed in 1943 to divide state offices and seats in parliament according to a religious system of proportional representation. For example, the prime minister must always be a Sunni, the president a Christian and the speaker of the parliament a Shiite Muslim.

EU election observation

The upcoming election will also focus on others – namely the groups and candidates that emerged from the 2019 uprising. They are called, for example, Khat Ahmar (Red Line), People's Anti-Corruption Observatory, Schamaluna ( Our north) and the list that also includes Bahaa Dalal. It is called Sahlona wal Jabal (flatlands and mountains).

“I want us to finally break the circle that has repeatedly secured the seats of the old political elite. Lebanon should be a civil state governed by the rule of law – without discrimination and sectarianism,” says Bahaa Dalal. This election is also important to show how much support the old parties have lost, says Ammar Aboud. He is an election expert and one of the founders of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Election (LADE).

These grain elevators are supposed to prevented even worse from the port explosion in August 2020, but now the government wants to tear it down. The resistance is great – they are considered a memorial.

But Ammar Aboud also fears that election manipulation could occur. Because in view of the crisis, it has become easier to buy votes. The coffers of the old parties are full and some can look forward to support from abroad. Saudi Arabia's ambassador recently returned to Beirut after months of tension. His return is also seen as a sign to Hezbollah, which is supported by arch-enemy Iran.

“I think the signal of the Saudi ambassador's return is that there is no complete withdrawal from Lebanon,” says Anna Fleischer. Presumably, Saudi Arabia is also supposed to help its Lebanese allies financially.

There is indeed a commission to monitor the elections in Lebanon, but like so many other things in Lebanon, it is chronically underfunded. The EU is therefore sending another team of election observers. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the EU was also providing financial and technical assistance to prepare for the elections. It is about strengthening democratic development and reforms in Lebanon. Head of the mission is the Hungarian Christian Democrat MEP György Hölvenyi, member of the subcommittee on human rights in the European Parliament.

Little prospect of structural change

But even if the likenesses of the various candidates can be seen on posters and large billboards all over the country, there is no real sense of optimism. People are tired, they are exhausted by everyday life and the crisis, many say. The fact that the opposition forces have split into many different groups since the protests in October 2019 could also have contributed to this.

“They have not managed to form joint lists “, says Anna Fleischer from the Böll Foundation. “Therefore, I consider the probability of an actual structural change to be very small.”

Lebanese abroad also vote

Nevertheless, the Lebanese hope that as many opposition candidates as possible will make it into parliament. So does Amal: “There are many hidden voices for the opposition from people who outwardly identify with the old regime. There are many former non-voters who are going to vote this year.”

And there are those Lebanese abroad who, according to Ammar Aboud, overwhelmingly vote for the opposition. According to the Lebanese Diaspora Network, 244,000 Lebanese abroad have registered for the elections, and the Ministry of the Interior also confirms this figure. A good 140,000 voted last week. A total of almost four million Lebanese are eligible to vote.

“It's a difficult challenge, but nothing is impossible,” says Amal Nassereddine. “If we can find just a little bit of hope in these elections, then hopefully the rest will slowly change. We just have to be patient.”

Watch the video 03:16

Lebanon ahead of the general election