SIDON, Lebanon (AP) — Running for parliament for the first time, independent Hania Zaatari walks the winding lanes of the old souk in the port city of Sidon, telling workers and poor shopkeepers that the resolution of the devastating economic crisis of Lebanon is its top priority.
“The economic plan must take into account marginalized people like you and give them a chance for renewal,” she told Ahmed Abu Dhahr, 70, one of two carpenters remaining on a street that barely two years old, numbered about 50.
The engineer-turned-candidate exuded confidence and hope. Yet his enthusiasm was met with shrugs and resignation, reflecting widespread fears that the vote in mid-May would only perpetuate the grim status quo.
With Lebanon in freefall for more than two years, this should be a decisive vote for the country’s ruling class. Their grip on power for decades has led to ruin one of the most dynamic countries in the Middle East.
The May 15 legislative elections are the first since Lebanon’s economic collapse began in late 2019. Government factions have done next to nothing to address the collapse, leaving the Lebanese to fend for themselves as ‘they are plunged into poverty, without electricity, medicine, garbage collection or any other semblance of normal life.
These are also the first elections since the catastrophic August 4, 2020 explosion in the port of Beirut that killed more than 215 people and destroyed large parts of the city. The destruction sparked widespread outrage over rampant corruption and mismanagement by mainstream parties.
A new generation of political opposition activists, like Zaatari, has emerged after massive waves of protests that began in October 2019, a historic moment when Lebanese temporarily abandoned their sectarian identity and chanted side by side for the overthrow of the ruling elite.
Activists are trying to build on this political commitment and awareness in Lebanon to implement change.
Yet instead of uniting, self-proclaimed opposition groups are divided along ideological lines on virtually every issue, including how to revive the economy.
As a result, there are on average at least three different opposition lists in each of the 15 electoral constituencies, an increase of 20% compared to the 2018 elections. A total of 103 lists with 1,044 candidates are vying for the legislature of 128 seats, which is equally divided between Christians and Muslims.
Many fear the eventual outcome.
Lebanon’s leaders, many of whom are warlords and militiamen survivors of the 1975-1990 civil war era, have proven extremely resilient.
They retain their seats from election to election and can behave with impunity in office, largely because the sectarian system of power-sharing and an outdated electoral law all but guarantee their place in parliament.
Their parties can rally supporters who remain fiercely loyal for sectarian or ideological reasons despite outrage over the state of the country. The economic crisis has only made people more dependent on clientelism and the money that parties distribute.
For many, elections are an exercise in futility.
“I am extremely disappointed and to be honest this is the last card before immigrating from Lebanon,” said Carmen Geha, associate professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut. She said she was moving to Spain this summer and no longer felt safe in the country.
“It is unacceptable that they spoiled the momentum that was in the streets and the suffering of people,” she said. Over the past two years, more than 250,000 people have left the country of nearly 7 million.
Before the vote, the streets were adorned with giant billboards and posters of candidates with unlikely promises of change. It’s a shocking sign of how much money is being spent on campaigns as the currency continues to fall and inflation, poverty and hunger rise.
Even the dominant factions tried to use the anger over the port explosion to make money in the elections, claiming to be on the side of reform. The Christian Lebanese Forces party issued campaign messages insisting that it pushed for better surveillance of the port before the explosion.
The explosion was caused by hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate haphazardly stored in a port warehouse. The ruling class has united to block the investigation into the explosion. Nevertheless, the Hezbollah militant group, which dominates the political landscape and the government, boasts in its campaign messages that it wants an investigation.
In a blatant act of defiance, two former ministers wanted for questioning for criminal negligence in connection with the port explosion are running for office. Both, Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter, belong to the Shiite Amal party, which is allied with Hezbollah.
“If they were to be re-elected, I would find that a direct insult to the whole country and to all the victims of the explosion, to all the normal human beings who remain in this country,” said Paul Naggar, the father of the one of the youngest victims of the explosion, Alexandra, 3 years old.
Naggar, director of the newly formed political advocacy group Kulluna Irada, said the election was a historic opportunity but expressed frustration at the opposition’s failure to unite.
“We don’t have the luxury of thinking right and left and center and socialism or liberalism, we are in a state of survival. It’s either we survive or we leave,” he said.
In the northern city of Jounieh, candidate Jad Ghosn, a journalist who recently decided to run for office with the left-leaning group Citizens in a State, said divisions were evident from the start.
“We have 300 political groups that claim to be opposition and revolution, and we have no structure to discuss or try to coordinate between all these opposition groups.”
Ghosn is running on a list in the Metn borough with the youngest candidate, Verena al-Amil, 25, and three others.
Outside a Starbucks, al-Amil approached a man who said he was voting for the Lebanese Forces, one of the main mainstream Christian parties. He said he was open to change, but hadn’t heard of many other parties.
Minutes before, a group of teenagers swarmed flashing hand gestures referencing another Christian party, founded by President Michel Aoun, which is politically allied with Hezbollah. It was a powerful sign of the power of the dominant parties over voters.
The new independent slates are “non-sectarian and therefore lack community support, which is the dominant discourse in Lebanese politics”, said Imad Salameh, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University.
“If the groups had been well-funded or supported by foreign powers like the mainstream parties, they might have had a better chance.”