The last time Lebanon held parliamentary elections, in 2018, Nour’s monthly salary was about $ 1,000. But as the country heads towards another vote, the value of the bank worker’s pay check has plunged to $ 100 – the result of a financial meltdown that she and many others blame on the very politicians seeking re-election.
“It was the politicians we voted for who brought us to this situation,” she said. “Now I worry if I have to go to the supermarket or the pharmacy.”
Battered by hyperinflation, power cuts and failing services, many Lebanese are angry at the politicians they accuse of plundering the country and wrecking its economy and have little faith that their situation will improve after this year’s parliamentary elections in May.
On top of that, some fear the collapse of the Sunni political bloc could lead to a vacuum that would further empower Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia group seen as the most formidable military and political force in Lebanon.
Under the country’s confessional system, the Sunnis provide the country’s prime minister but Saad al-Hariri, the three-time prime minister, withdrew from politics in January and announced his Future Movement, the leading Sunni party, would boycott the poll. He said he was convinced there “there is no room for any positive opportunity for Lebanon in the light of Iranian influence, international disarray, national division, sectarianism, and the collapse of the state”.
A Sunny boycott of the poll carries risks.
“There is definitely the risk of an imbalance [of power], ”Said Fouad Siniora, a former prime minister from the Future Movement who opposes the boycott. “An effort has to be exerted because ultimately it is not acceptable that Lebanon will fall completely into the hands of the Iranians and of Hezbollah. It is not in the interest of Lebanese, the Christians, the Muslims, the Arabs or the world. ”
In the run-up to May’s poll, Sunni leaders are trying to find ways to ensure the community is represented. Ahmed Fatfat, a former minister, said there were 27 seats in the assembly allocated to Sunnis and that the search was on for credible candidates. The fear, he said, was that some of those seats would go to Sunnis allied with Hezbollah, further tilting the balance towards the Shia group. One option under consideration, he said, was for Future Movement candidates to run as independents.
“We are not expecting a miracle from these elections,” he said. “The basic fact now is that for any progress to occur, we need to build the state. But that will be in the shadow of Hezbollah’s arms which it has already used [against domestic rivals] and which could still render election results meaningless. ”
Hezbollah and its allies in the Free Patriotic Movement party of Michel Aoun, the Maronite Christian president, have a majority in the current assembly. The group’s expanding influence has led to strained ties between Beirut and the Sunni Gulf countries, which once backed the Sunni camp and spent billions in Lebanon as a way of countering Iranian influence. As a condition for mending the current rift, Gulf countries demanded in January that the Lebanese authorities disarm Hizbollah, a move most considered unrealistic.
“This [the attempt to disarm them] would be a recipe for civil war in which Hezbollah would be the last one standing, ”said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “They [the Gulf states] are washing their hands of Lebanon as an Iranian outpost, but what is their plan B? It is shortsighted because whatever happens in Lebanon will come back to bite you. ”
The country’s economy has contracted since the eruption of its crippling fiscal and banking crisis in 2019 plunged three quarters of the population into poverty. Another devastating shock came in 2020 when a massive explosion of badly-stored chemicals at the port of Beirut killed more than 200 people and shredded swaths of the city. No senior official has been held responsible because powerful political factions have been impeding an inquiry.
Lebanon’s overlapping economic and political crises will probably encourage those who do vote to rally more closely to traditional sectarian leaders, including some who built reputations as warlords in the civil war that ended in 1990, analysts say.
“Many people experiencing the collapse of the country will turn to former warlords or to anyone who can provide protection or services,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
In a best-case scenario, he and others said the poll could help boost the small number of reform-minded opposition politicians. Yahya pointed to efforts by civil society groups to back new candidates. “But this is still not an organized opposition, still in disarray and not politically mature,” she cautioned.
Kulluna Irada is one such group and hopes to run in all 15 electoral districts. “What we want is to be able to say that there are new people in parliament, a new cross-sectarian bloc and that is here to stay so you confessional leaders can no longer say you represent your communities,” said Diana Menhem, managing director. .
It is unclear if that will be enough to convince voters such as Nour to head to the ballot box. “I won’t vote in the next election or I will cast a blank ballot,” she said.