Parliamentary Elections Pivotal for Troubled Lebanon

The Middle Eastern country is in the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis, labeled a ‘deliberate depression’ by the World Bank.

A boy waves a flag Lebanon's Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah during a rally to attend a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, broadcast on a giant screen, in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, on May 9, 2022, ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections on May 15. The portraits on billboards are fighters from the group who were killed in confrontations with Israel or in Syria.
A boy waves a flag Lebanon's Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah during a rally to attend a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, broadcast on a giant screen, in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, on May 9, 2022, ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections on May 15. The portraits on billboards are fighters from the group who were killed in confrontations with Israel or in Syria. (photo: Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP/Getty)

BEIRUT — Amid the catastrophic socioeconomic collapse of their country, Lebanese are gearing up for legislative elections May 15.

Lebanon has been going through an unprecedented economic crisis, labeled a “deliberate depression” by the World Bank and one of the worst in the history of the world since 1850. 

Parliamentary elections take place every four years in Lebanon for the 128-seat Legislature, which is equally divided between Christians and Muslims. Around 40% of Lebanon’s population is Christian.

This year’s vote consists of a total of 103 electoral lists — divided among 15 districts — with 1,044 parliamentary candidates vying for the 128 seats, 20% more than in the last election in 2018. Of the 103 registered lists, around 30 are those of candidates resulting from a protest movement, a sign that such hopefuls have failed to form a united front. 

Some of the participants of the protest movement begun in October 2019 decided to run for this year's parliamentary elections, mostly as independents, opposing the political status quo.

Observers told the Register this is a pivotal election for the future of the country — and its Christians.

“A great deal is at stake for Lebanon’s Christians in these parliamentary elections — nothing less than the very existence of a free, open and prosperous Lebanon, harboring a secure and contented Christian community,” Habib Malik, retired associate professor of history at the Lebanese American University, said.

Pointing to the “colossal historic catastrophe” the country is witnessing, Malik noted that “the gradual and systematic erosion of their finances, their jobs, their numbers, their livelihoods and their future prospects only begins to outline the contours of this unprecedented calamity for Lebanon’s Christians.”

“Christians do need to go out on election day and cast their votes for any candidates opposed to the vampirical mafiocracy that defrauded the people and that continues to suck their blood,” Malik stressed.

 

Mismanagement and Corruption Blamed

Since late 2019, the national currency has lost more than 90% of its value. Nearly 80% of the Lebanese population has been plunged into poverty, against less than 30% before the crisis, in the once-middle-income country. 

The demise of Lebanon has been widely blamed on decades of corruption and mismanagement by an entrenched political class that has held the reigns of the country for more than 30 years.

The May 15 elections will be the first since October 2019, when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in protest of the economic downturn, chanting Kellon yaané kellon (“all means all”), a slogan signifying the rejection of the entire ruling class. The protests continued for months, although more sparsely, but were tempered by COVID-19 lockdowns that hit in early 2020.

Then, in August 2020, a double explosion rocked the port of Beirut, caused by the ignition of a stockpile of ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored at the port for years. Nearly two years later, there has yet to be justice or accountability for the catastrophe, which killed 223 people, injured more than 7,000, and displaced more than 300,000, devastating entire districts of the capital.

As if that wasn’t enough for the weary population, with the collapsing economy, Lebanese are experiencing massive unemployment, severe electricity, medicine, fuel and food shortages, and are unable to afford basic needs. 

What was known as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” has literally been thrown into the dark ages. Electricity from Lebanon’s state provider is now available only two hours a day, and soaring fees for subscriptions to private generator providers have become out of reach for many households and businesses.

 

Opportunity for Real Change

Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, has been continuously urging the Lebanese to seize this democratic opportunity to bring about real change and to fulfill their voting rights and duties, calling for massive participation in the polls.

“We call on all citizens to a massive turnout to vote because it is the moment of change,” Cardinal Rai said. “It's time to wake up, Lebanese people,” he pleaded.

Earlier, Cardinal Rai had stressed that “the elections give every citizen the opportunity to translate the slogan that democracy is the rule of the people by the people.” 

“We renew our call on the citizens to vote en masse to regain the initiative of self-determination from those who have tampered with this fate and subjected Lebanon to collapse and its identity to fraud and neglected to lay hands on state institutions and decisions,” the head of the Maronite Church said.

Cardinal Rai presided over the May 4 meeting of the Maronite bishops of Lebanon, who likewise called upon citizens “to actively exercise their constitutional right, with a conscious conscience and a sincere patriotic commitment, so that they may contribute to bringing about the desired change and to extricate the country from the collapse that awaits it.”

    

First-Time Voter

Joseph Sfeir, a 22-year-old civil engineering student at St. Joseph University in Beirut, will be voting for the first time. The voting age in Lebanon is 21.

“These elections are a turning point. They will decide Lebanon's future,” he told the Register.

“Today, due to the economic meltdown, the political turmoil, instability and the lack of human basic needs such as infrastructure, food and medicine, the elections have shifted from being a right to an obligation,” Sfeir said. 

“So we are faced with two choices: Either we vote to renew our frustrations and problems by electing the same people who were the main reason, or we elect those who can really make a change, the voices of change, those who will face the corrupted and criminals in power,” the Maronite Catholic student said.

Sfeir was one of the participants in the Model Youth Parliament (MYP), organized by St. Joseph University in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. It is a parliamentary simulation aimed at introducing university students to the different roles of members of parliament. 

Founded by the Jesuits in 1875, the university has hosted the Model Youth Parliament since 2016. Sfeir was one of eight students awarded for exemplary performance in this year’s round, which took place in April. 

 

‘The First Gate, the First Door’

For Rowan Ibrahim, also distinguished as an exemplary participant in the Model Youth Parliament, “this election is crucial for the future of Lebanon because it is the first gate, the first door, that leads to a change, the impact, that we hope to see in the future for the future generations.”

“I don’t believe that change in Lebanon can or will happen overnight, in one month, in two to three years, but I do believe that change is a journey and that it has its starting point. This starting point is the elections in Lebanon,” the 20-year-old Shiite Muslim, a third-year law student at Lebanese University, told the Register.

She said that her involvement in the Model Youth Program has taught her that “politics is mainly about principles and flexibility.”

“It’s about having members of parliament who are educated, honest and committed, yet flexible, who are willing to negotiate in order to solve legal dilemmas, to contribute to the growth of society, the economical growth, the social growth, educational growth.” 

Lebanon’s newly elected legislators will be tasked with forming a new government and electing the country’s new president. President Michel Aoun’s six-year term expires Oct. 31. Under Lebanon’s power-sharing system, the post is reserved for a Maronite Catholic. Lebanon has the only Christian head of state in the entire Middle East and North Africa.

Meanwhile, Lebanese, particularly educated youth, are leaving the country in droves.

A study published by the Arab Barometer in April shows that nearly half of Lebanese want to emigrate and look for work abroad, and about 63% of young people aged 18 to 29 want to leave. Lebanon is also at risk of further “brain drain,” with 61% of those with higher education wishing to emigrate.

Once considered “the hospital of the Middle East” for its exemplary medical care, Lebanon has seen the exodus of health professionals — 40% of its doctors — since the financial collapse.

Since 2020, requests for Lebanese passport renewals have been 10 times higher than in previous years, according to the General Directorate of General Security.

And with the May 15 elections looming and the future of his beloved country in the balance, Sfeir expressed a sentiment deep in the hearts of Lebanese torn between staying in their homeland or emigrating: “We want to stay here surrounded by our family and friends in the Lebanon that we love.”

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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