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Ahead of elections Lebanese see no hope for political change

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Apathy, bitterness, frustration, rage, despair and gloom are prevailing among the Lebanese as the country prepares to hold parliamentary elections deemed “crucial” by the international community. There are hopes the vote would yield an overdue political change to help steer Lebanon out of its worst financial and economic crisis in decades.

As the electoral battle begins to heat up less than two months before the polls scheduled on May 15, the Lebanese government, rival factions, as well as anti-government candidates from civil society groups and “change forces” are urging the Lebanese to participate heavily in the voting to achieve the required change and subsequently, break the entrenched political elite’s grip on power.

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The so-called “change or revolution forces” that are vying to win seats in parliament refer to groups that emerged from an unprecedented nationwide anti-government popular uprising by hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who took to the streets on October 17, 2019. They were protesting the deteriorating living conditions, rampant corruption and waste of public funds that are largely blamed for the country’s economic meltdown.

Expulsion of the political class

Among other things, they demanded the expulsion of the entire political class they blame for the crisis and accuse them of mismanagement, incompetence and corruption. Despite being riven by differences and lacking a unified political program, these forces have begun electoral campaigning in earnest, holding rallies and TV interviews to drum up popular support for their candidates.

Six opposition groups teamed up at a rally in Beirut on March 12 to launch an electoral initiative under the slogan: “Our unity is the beginning of change.” Organizers said the initiative is aimed at closing the groups’ ranks in order to contest the elections with unified lists along with other opposition parties in various areas.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose cabinet has promised to hold the polls on time, has decided not to run in the elections in his hometown in the northern city of Tripoli, in a move apparently aimed at showing the government’s impartiality in the upcoming polls.

Instead, he appealed to the Lebanese to vote while stressing that “real change” begins with the ballot boxes. “I appeal to all the Lebanese and call on them to vote because the desired real change begins with the ballot boxes and not only in expression of opinion through media [outlets] and social media and in public squares,” Mikati said in a televised speech on March 14 announcing his decision not to run in the elections. “Each electoral ballot put in the box is capable of effecting the desired change,” added Mikati, who heads a three-member bloc in the current Parliament.

Following the expiry of the deadline for candidates to officially submit their candidacy applications to the Interior Ministry at midnight March 15, Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi announced that the number of registered candidates totaled 1,043, an increase of 77 from the 2018 election candidates. The number of woman candidates also rose to 155 from 111 in the 2018 polls. The registered candidates will compete for seats in the 128-member legislature.

But a segment of Lebanese citizens interviewed by Al Arabiya English appeared to be skeptical that the election outcome would produce any significant political change to improve the lot of the Lebanese people. Perhaps the rage against the ruling political elite and public frustration with past governments’ performance could not be stronger than in Beirut’s predominately Shia southern suburbs, where the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah enjoys wide support.

View from the ground

“I will not vote for any candidates affiliated with the political parties, including the two Shia groups, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah. Even if they bring the ballot box to my house, I will not vote and instead I will expel them,” Fatima, a 30-yearold veiled Shia woman who runs a bookshop in the southern suburb of Haret Hreik, told Al Arabiya English.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose cabinet has promised to hold the polls on time, has decided not to run in the elections in his hometown in the northern city of Tripoli. (Stock image)
Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose cabinet has promised to hold the polls on time, has decided not to run in the elections in his hometown in the northern city of Tripoli. (Stock image)

She spoke in a loud voice reflecting her anger and despair with the political class. She refused to give her family name for safety reasons. Asked about the reasons for her anger, she said: “Those politicians have led the country to the economic and financial collapse, poverty, darkness, not to mention severe shortages of medicine and the skyrocketing prices of foodstuffs, fuels, including gasoline and diesel oil [after the lifting of state subsidies on those items].”

Fatima said she will not heed a religious order often issued by Hezbollah officials during election time to urge their supporters to participate in voting. “I will not comply with such orders,” she said in a defiant voice.

Nour Harb, a 28-year-old schoolteacher was equally vocal in lashing out at the ruling clique. “I will not vote for any candidate because I have no confidence in all politicians and parties that have ruled Lebanon for more than three decades,” she told Al Arabiya English. “All the parties do not work for the benefit of Lebanon because they are subservient to regional and foreign powers.”

Nonetheless, both Fatima and Nour said candidates from the civil society groups and “revolution forces” should be given an opportunity to bring about the “required change to rescue Lebanon.”

Unlike Fatima and Nour, Rana Muharram, a Sunni mother of three children, said she will vote, even though she said she did not expect a major change to emerge from the elections. “I will definitely vote because the polls are a chance to bring about a change in political life. However, the overwhelming popular class follows its political leaders. Therefore, I don’t expect a radical change in the current political equation,” Muharram, who works in a bank on Beirut’s once fashionable Hamra Street, told Al Arabiya English.

A supporter of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Muharram, who votes in Beirut’s Sunni electoral district, defended Hariri’s decision to step away from political life and to not run in the elections.

“Hariri’s decision was right because he knows that there is no hope under the current situation for Lebanon’s salvation,” she said. She added that Hariri’s pullout from the political scene was bound to “reduce the Sunni voters’ enthusiasm to vote.”

A old man solicits the charity of passers-by on the Lebanese capital Beirut's Hamra street. (Stock image)
A old man solicits the charity of passers-by on the Lebanese capital Beirut's Hamra street. (Stock image)

Hariri took the decision on January 24, citing Iranian influence in Lebanon through the Hezbollah militia. His move plunged Lebanon into further political uncertainty and threw into disarray the Sunni community which the Hariri family has dominated for 30 years.

Despite mounting international pressure on the Lebanese government to hold the elections on time, a Salim, a 63-year-old taxi driver said he doubted the polls would follow the timeline. “Even if the elections were held, there would be no change because the corrupt ruling class would remain in power,” he told Al Arabiya English. “The people will continue to suffer and the country will slide further toward the abyss,” Salim who is based on Hamra Street in the city claimed. He declined to reveal his family name.

A juice shop owner also on Hamra Street was equally furious with the political class, saying he will not vote for any candidate. “I don’t trust any of the political elite who are responsible for the country’s economic collapse,” Abdel Aziz Younis, 74, told Al Arabiya English. He said he does not expect a solution to Lebanon’s complicated crises to come from inside the country. “I don’t know if foreign powers want to solve Lebanon’s crises now. But I don’t see a solution with the ruling political clique,” he added.

The local LBCI channel on March 18 interviewed several people in the northern city of Tripoli about their election options. All of them, including a number of women, vented their anger at the political class, blaming them for the dire economic and financial crisis and saying they will not vote for any candidate.

“It’s a shame for us to vote for any candidate amid this suffocating economic crisis for which political leaders are mainly responsible,” said a veiled Muslim woman flanked by her husband and two children.

A family medicine physician at the American University of Beirut Medical Center said he will vote but was skeptical about the election outcome. “I will vote. I expect minor changes [from the elections] as the opposition is not united,” Dr. Bassem Saab told Al Arabiya English.

Naim Saleh, a 69-year-old father of three children, said he does not expect any important political change from the elections to help solve the country’s multiple crises “due to the absence of a unified vision or program among the opposition and change forces that emerged from the 2019 uprising.”

“Nothing will change after the elections. You have a well-entrenched political class that are determined to defend their positions in the face of splintered opposition and civil society groups which lack a unified program to save the country,” said Saleh, who runs a newspaper stand on Hamra Street.

“All the ruling forces and the opposition have declared that the elections will be crucial and fateful for the country. But the people are not sure that the emergence of new faces will make a difference to halt the country’s downhill slide,” he said. In Saleh’s view, “even if the change forces managed to win about 10 seats in Parliament, this would not constitute an effective factor to bring about the required change.”

People gather during a protest called by the families of the victims of the Beirut port blast, near UNESCO Palace in Beirut, Lebanon. (Reuters)
People gather during a protest called by the families of the victims of the Beirut port blast, near UNESCO Palace in Beirut, Lebanon. (Reuters)

Based in Beirut’s southern suburbs 51-year-old money exchange shop owner Sami Berro, said the only way to overcome Lebanon’s deepest crisis is through “a divine earthquake” to get rid of the country’s political elite. “I will not vote for any candidate or a list in the upcoming elections because I don’t see any chance for a change from these elections. Instead, the same ruling political class will consolidate their positions in the elections and subsequently, the country will head toward further deterioration and economic collapse,” he told Al Arabiya English. “The corrupt political class that is currently in power will continue to control the country after the elections. Nothing will end the worsening situation except a divine earthquake to relieve Lebanon of those politicians,” added Berro, a Shia who usually votes in his hometown in south Lebanon.

Asked about the chances for anti-government candidates and independents to win enough seats in the next parliament that would bring about the desired change, he said: “The civil society groups and change forces will not gain more than 12 seats in Parliament. This number will not have an effective role to cause a substantial change in the current political equation.”

Zeinab Farfour, a young Shia woman employed at a computer company in the southern suburb of Haret Hreik, was not less skeptical about the election results. “I will not vote for any candidate who belongs to the long-entrenched parties, not even to Hezbollah’s candidates,” Farfour, 29, told Al Arabiya English. “I don’t trust the various parties that have ruled and looted the country for decades.”

A similar pessimistic view was echoed by a young woman named Danielle who lives in Beirut’s Christian district of Ashrafieh. “Lebanon’s politicians have proved over the past years that they are not trustworthy, let alone worthy of governing the country. I will not vote for any of the traditional political parties,” she said, declining to reveal her family name. She added she will vote for candidates from “change forces.”

This year’s elections come as Lebanon is in the throes of a severe economic and financial crisis, described by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s, posing the gravest threat to its stability since the 1975-90 Civil War.

The economic meltdown, caused by decades of mismanagement and corruption, has propelled more than 70 percent of Lebanon’s 6 million population into poverty amid a crashing Lebanese pound that has lost more 90 percent of its value since late 2019. It has caused prices of food, supplies and basic commodities to skyrocket. The Lebanese government has begun negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout package to rescue the debt-ridden nation from its worst economic crunch in history.

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