Bogged down in crisis, Lebanese begin voting for new parliament

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

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Lebanese voted for a new parliament on Sunday against the backdrop of an economic meltdown that is transforming the country and low expectations that the vote would significantly alter the political landscape.

A new crop of candidates from the 2019 protest movement is running against the country’s entrenched ruling class blamed for the collapse, in hopes of toppling them. But they are divided and lack the money, experience and other advantages of traditional political rulers.

People began voting shortly after the polls opened, under the watchful eye of security forces that spread across the country. Sunday’s vote is the first since Lebanon’s implosion began in October 2019, sparking widespread anti-government protests.

It is also the first election since the massive August 2020 explosion in the port of Beirut, which 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 poorly stored ammonium nitrate that ignited in a harbor warehouse following a fire at the facility.

The vote is seen as the last chance to reverse course and punish the current crop of politicians, most of whom derive their power from Lebanon’s sectarian political system and spoils taken at the end of its 15-year civil war in 1990. amid skepticism and widespread resignation that the vote would surely bring back the same political parties.

“I have done what I can and I know the situation will not change 180 degrees,” Rabah Abbas, 74, said after voting in Beirut. He fears that Sunday’s election will only be symbolic and that Lebanon will again be stuck in post-election political wrangling over the formation of a new government and the election of a new president in October.

“Let’s hit the wall again. Lebanon is a hopeless case,” he said.

The extent of Lebanon’s collapse was on 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 cellphone light to check their list before putting it in the box.

Major political parties and politicians remained strong in 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 flowed, 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 people, including 1 million Syrian refugees, now live in poverty.

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

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

Lebanon has more than 3.5 million voters, many of whom will vote in its 15 constituencies. Earlier this month, Lebanese living abroad voted in the countries where they live.

Traditional Western-backed parties hope to wrest a parliamentary majority from Hezbollah, while many independents hope to break through the traditional parties’ lists and candidates.

This year’s vote comes as a powerful Sunni leader, former prime minister Saad Hariri, suspended his work in politics. 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 asks for consultations with the 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 divided between Muslims and Christians under the constitution that was drafted just before the civil war ended.

On Saturday afternoon, the Lebanese army began mobilizing in areas where tensions could be expected, mainly in areas around Beirut and in the vicinity of Mount Lebanon.

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

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