Home » Lebanon goes to the vote in full economic crisis

Lebanon goes to the vote in full economic crisis

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Lebanon goes to the vote in full economic crisis

13 maggio 2022 14:19

One way to predict the future in Lebanon is to look at election posters and imagine the opposite. The last time voters chose a parliament, in 2018, the streets of the country were filled with joyful messages. “Our Port Will Come” was written on one in reference to a marina that was supposed to attract cruise ships and boost the economy. Another praised the financial stability of Lebanon: “Around us, currencies are collapsing, but our lira is stable”. In August 2020, Lebanon’s main port was destroyed by one of the strongest non-nuclear explosions ever seen in history and the lira lost more than 94 percent of its value.

The same scheme could also apply this year. Legislative elections will take place on May 15 in Lebanon. Fashionably dressed candidates smile from the posters posted everywhere. The most common word we read is “change”: everyone promises reforms even if the most likely thing is that the situation will remain the same. If ever there was a time to vote to get rid of the ballast, this is it. Lebanon is going through one of the most serious economic crises in modern history: since 2019 the GDP has contracted by 58 percent, annual inflation exceeds 200 percent, the minimum wage is one dollar a day. According to the United Nations, three out of four Lebanese are poor.

Without ties to power
At dawn, in a once lively area of ​​Beirut, young men rummage through bins for something to sell. At sunset the pensioners go out to ask for some change. The night brings with it an eerie darkness – most of the street lighting and signage don’t work. The faces on the posters seem to be the only ones smiling.

This situation has its roots in 2019, when a state scam set up to support a fixed exchange rate system and pay off huge fiscal and trade deficits was unveiled. But the crisis has much more distant origins. The political class that came to power after the civil war ended in 1990 has built a corrupt and incapable apparatus. He stole billions of dollars through opaque contracts and bribes, spending $ 40 billion in subsidies for a state-run power plant that never provided electricity for twenty-four consecutive hours. “The government, the parliamentarians, the ministers: they are all one entity and equally responsible,” says economist Roy Badaro. “The system is completely blocked by these people, even if they are political opponents”.

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No person in power was punished for the port explosion. Politicians went to great lengths to obstruct official investigations.

For the allocation of 128 seats in the May elections, 1,043 candidates registered, a real record (42 later withdrew). The Sawti (My Voice) activist group calls 212 of these candidates “alternative”, with no ties to the ruling elite. For example, in the Metn neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital, activists hope to sink Ibrahim Kanaan, an MP who worked closely with banks to thwart a financial recovery plan. His main opponent is Jad Ghosn, an independent journalist known for his articles on political and economic problems.

The technocrat group Beirut Madinati (Beirut, my city) has eleven candidates in the capital, and hopes to take advantage of the popular anger that erupted after the port explosion in 2020. Caused by thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate inadequately stored for years , the blast killed at least 218 people, devastating much of the city center. No person in power was punished. Politicians went to great lengths to obstruct official investigations.

Translating anger into vows, however, will be difficult. Campaign financing laws are weak and favor incumbent politicians with huge resources to spend. The posters alone cost up to $ 8,500, a figure that goes beyond the availability of a bottom-up campaign. Instead, independents try to get their messages circulated on social networks. The buying and selling of votes is legal. With such a large chunk of the population in a desperate situation, party leaders could buy votes more easily.

About 244,000 Lebanese living abroad have registered for the vote, three times the number in 2018. Some activists hope that the diaspora is less likely to support sectarian-based parties. However, many expats have not yet received guidance on how to vote. The resources available to embassies have been reduced due to the crisis.

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Errors of the opposition
Frequent power outages caused by fuel shortages could cause the ballot to take place literally in the dark. Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said the electricity company has asked for $ 16 million to light the polling stations, more than the entire election budget. In the past, votes have been counted transparently, but some fear that this time things will turn out differently.

The opposition has also made mistakes. The most serious was that of not appearing in a unitary formation. Charbel Nahas, a former leftist minister, has supported many candidates. In most areas, however, they are candidates not only against the old parties of the system, but also against one or two other “alternative” lists. Lebanon’s complicated electoral law, incomprehensible even to very many voters, combines sectarian-based quotas with a system of proportional lists. Parties that do not reach a minimum vote threshold do not get any seats. The competing lists will fragment the opposition’s vote.

Some reformers want to turn these elections into a referendum on Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and party that defends the sectarian-based system. This has given rise to fragile alliances with old guard figures, such as Samy Gemayel, the head of Kataeb, a Christian party linked to paramilitary circles. Others refuse to cooperate with parties of the past. Expectations are very low. According to some activists, four or five independent MPs would still be a victory. Hezbollah continues to have a lot of support among people of the same denomination and remains the strongest armed force in Lebanon. It will certainly not be reduced to irrelevance with a vote.

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Election night will not be decisive, however, as the work to form a government drags on for a very long time. The last ballot was followed by nine months of negotiations.

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Under Lebanon’s sectarian-based power-sharing system, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim. However, it is not clear who will lead the community after the vote. Najib Mikati, prime minister since September, is not a candidate. Neither is Saad Hariri, who has already completed two terms in this position: his future Movement will not field any candidates. In October, parliament will also have to choose a president to take over from Michel Aoun, who has come to the end of his six-year term. Given the uncertainty surrounding two of the three highest positions, it could take months to reach an agreement on a new government.

Lebanon has no time to waste. On April 7, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) signed a preliminary agreement that could include a three billion dollar loan. To unlock these funds, however, the country must begin restructuring its banks. Among other things, parliament has not yet passed a law on capital controls or corrected the regulations on banking secrecy.

It is difficult to be optimistic about the vote. Many Lebanese with money or foreign passports have left. Many others, less fortunate, are trying to do the same. On 23 April a boat carrying migrants, which had sailed illegally for Cyprus, capsized. At least seven people have died and dozens more are missing. A survey conducted by the Arab barometer institute found that 48 percent of Lebanese (63 percent among young people) want to emigrate. Whatever happens in the May 15 elections, many Lebanese will continue to choose to leave.

(Translation by Giusy Muzzopappa)

This article appeared in the British weekly The Economist.
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