Mired in collapse, Lebanese vote for new parliament

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People line up to vote during legislative elections in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

People line up to vote during legislative elections in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

PA

Lebanese voted for a new parliament on Sunday amid a country-shaping economic collapse and dim hopes the election will significantly alter the political landscape.

A new generation of candidates from the 2019 protest movement are running against the country’s entrenched ruling class that is blamed for the collapse, hoping to topple them. But they are divided and lack the money, experience and other perks held by traditional political leaders who have had a grip on power for decades.

Voters began voting soon after polling stations opened under the watchful eye of security forces deployed across the country. Sunday’s vote is the first since Lebanon’s implosion began in October 2019, triggering widespread anti-government protests.

It is also the first election since the August 2020 massive explosion in the port of Beirut that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts of the Lebanese capital. The explosion, widely blamed on negligence, was triggered by hundreds of tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate igniting in a port warehouse after a fire broke out at the facility.

Sunday’s vote is seen as a last chance to turn the tide and punish the current crop of politicians, most of whom derive their power from Lebanon’s sectarian political system and the spoils taken at the end of its 15-year civil war. in 1990. But expectations for real change were low amid widespread skepticism and resignation that the vote was sure to bring back the same powerful political parties.

“I did what I could and I know the situation will not change 180 degrees,” Rabah Abbas, 74, said after casting his ballot in Beirut. He fears the vote will be symbolic and that Lebanon will once again be stuck in post-election political wrangling over the formation of a new government and the election of a new president in October.

“We are going to hit a wall again. Lebanon is a basket case,” he said, echoing the general sentiment. Polls close at 7 p.m. local time (1600 GMT) and official results are due Monday.

The scale of Lebanon’s collapse was on full display on Sunday. In the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s poorest city, several polling stations were without electricity and voters had to climb several flights of stairs to vote. Voters were seen using their mobile phone lights to check names and lists before casting their ballots.

Mirvat Dimashkieh, 55, a housewife, said she was voting for change and for the “new faces” in the running, adding that long-serving politicians should stand down.

“They should give others a chance. Enough flying,” she said.

Political parties and mainstream politicians remained strong ahead of the vote, while opposition figures and civil society activists hoping to overthrow them are fractured. Lebanese parties have long relied on a system that encourages voters to vote in exchange for individual favors and benefits.

Money poured in, with political parties offering cash bribes, sandwiches, transportation and other favors to voters.

Since the collapse began, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value, and many have left the country in search of opportunities abroad. Three quarters of the country’s 6 million inhabitants, including 1 million Syrian refugees, now live in poverty.

The World Bank has described Lebanon’s collapse as one of the world’s worst in the past 150 years.

Some 718 candidates on 103 lists are vying for seats in the 128-member parliament. Voting takes place once every four years. In 2018, voters gave the mighty Hezbollah and its allies a majority with 71 seats.

Lebanon has more than 3.5 million eligible voters, many of whom will vote in its 15 electoral districts.

Major Western-backed parties hope to remove Hezbollah’s parliamentary majority, while many independents hope to crack party lists and traditional candidates.

Reflecting the tensions, fights broke out between supporters of Hezbollah and those of the Saudi-backed Lebanese Christian Forces party, which has been one of the Iranian armed group’s most vocal critics.

The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections said its delegates were forced to withdraw from two polling stations following threats from Hezbollah supporters and their allies from the Shiite Amal group.

This year’s vote comes as the main Sunni political leader, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, suspended his political work and called for a Sunni boycott. Some have warned that this could help Hezbollah’s Sunni allies win more seats.

In a sign of how political allegiances often take precedence in Lebanon, Qassim Shtouni, 71, traveled all the way from his village in southern Lebanon to Beirut to vote. He said he chose an alliance made up of several traditional groups, including Hezbollah, President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Group.

Sitting in a plastic chair outside a polling station, Shtouni said the main reason he voted for a Hezbollah-led alliance is “because my vote will be against normalization with Israel.” He noted the recent agreements between Israel and Arab Gulf countries.

“The elections in Lebanon today are not local elections. They are international elections,” he said, referring to the political battle between Iran-backed groups and pro-Western factions.

After the election results are released, Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government will become an interim cabinet until the president calls for consultations with new members of parliament, who will choose the next prime minister.

The new parliament will also elect a new head of state after President Michel Aoun’s six-year term expires at the end of October.

Lebanon’s Parliament and Cabinet seats are evenly split between Muslims and Christians under the constitution that was drafted shortly before the end of the civil war.

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Associated Press reporter Lujain Jo contributed reporting from Tripoli, Lebanon.

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