Mired in crisis, Lebanese start voting for new parliament

BEIRUT — Lebanese voted for a new parliament on Sunday amid a country-shaping economic meltdown and low expectations that the vote would 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 advantages held by traditional political leaders.

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.

The 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 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 Sunday’s election will only be symbolic and that Lebanon will once again be locked 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 hopeless case,” he said.

The extent of Lebanon’s collapse was unveiled 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 her cell phone light to check her list before putting it in the box.

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 six 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. Earlier this month, Lebanese living abroad voted in the countries where they live.

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

This year’s vote comes as a powerful Sunni leader, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, has suspended political work. Some have warned that this could help Hezbollah’s Sunni allies win more seats.

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 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.

From Saturday afternoon, the Lebanese army began to deploy in areas where tensions could be expected, mainly in the vicinity of Beirut and neighboring Mount Lebanon.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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