Sat, 02 Jul 2022

Polls opened on Sunday in Lebanon's first election since the deadly Beirut port blast and the country's economic collapse, making it a test of whether Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies can preserve their parliamentary majority amid soaring poverty and public anger.

The parliamentary election is a first test for opposition movements spawned by an unprecedented anti-establishment uprising in 2019 that briefly raised hopes of regime change in Lebanon.

Yet observers have warned not to expect any seismic shift, with every lever of power firmly in the hands of traditional sectarian parties and an electoral system rigged in their favour.

After an underwhelming campaign stifled by the nation's all-consuming economic predicament, polling stations opened at 7am local time. The voting in Lebanon came a week after the Lebanese diaspora in France and several Western nations, as well as Gulf states, cast their ballots in an overseas vote.

The army deployed across the country to secure an election Lebanon's donors have stressed was a pre-requisite for crucial financial rescue measures.

People began casting their ballots shortly after the polls opened, under the watchful eye of security forces that have fanned out across the country.

Independents can hope for more than the lone seat they clinched in 2018 but most of parliament's 128 seats will remain in the clutches of the very political class that is blamed for the country's woes.

The 2018 vote saw the heavily armed Shiite movement Hezbollah and its allies - including President Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Christian party - win a 71-seat majority.

Those results pulled Lebanon deeper into the orbit of Iran, marking a blow to the influence of Sunni Muslim-led Saudi Arabia.

Hezbollah has said it expects few changes from the make-up of the current parliament, though its opponents - including the Saudi-aligned Lebanese Forces, another Christian group - say they hope to scoop up seats from the FPM.

Adding a note of uncertainty, a boycott by Sunni leader and longtime former prime minister Saad al-Hariri has left a vacuum that both Hezbollah allies and opponents are seeking to fill.

Economic mismanagement, corruption top voting issues

Since the last election, the country was mutilated by an August 2020 blast at the Beirut port that went down as one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and deepened one of the most spectacular economic downturns of our time.

The Lebanese pound has lost 95 percent of its value, people's savings are blocked in banks, minimum wage won't buy a tank of petrol and mains electricity comes on only two hours a day.

More than 80 percent of the population is now considered poor by the UN, with the most desperate increasingly attempting perilous boat crossings to flee to Europe.

Once described as the Switzerland of the Middle East, Lebanon ranked second-to-last behind Afghanistan in the latest World Happiness Index released in March.

Numbed by the daily hardships of the economic crisis, many registered voters have seemed indifferent to an election that they doubted would even be held until a few days ago.

Despite international pressure to reform Lebanese politics, the corruption that sank the country is still rife, including in the electoral process.

The crisis has only widened the gap in purchasing power between the politicians who buy votes and the electorate that sells them.

At one candidate's rally in the northern city of Tripoli, some well-wishers disappointed by the lack of cash handouts made off with the plastic chairs.

Test for a fractured protest movement

While Sunday's election might not topple their reviled leadership, some Lebanese see the vote as an important test for the principles that arose during the October 2019 uprising.

In the 2018 elections, an extraordinary coalition of independent and secular civil society members, called the Kulluna Watani list, which fielded a record number of female candidates.

The campaign trail excitement around the Kulluna Watani list however failed to translate into parliamentary seats. Lebanon's entrenched political parties closed ranks, formed alliances - and aided by a carefully crafted new electoral law - secured a parliamentary majority. Kulluna Watani managed to win just one seat in the 2018 vote.

While the 2022 vote was seen as a major electoral test for the protest movement, the dozens of opposition groups - popularly known as the "thawra" or revolution - failed to coalesce into a unified political front.

Despite the challenges, Sunday's vote remains a testament to Lebanon's vibrant democratic process in a Middle East country that retains vital civic liberties.

For Marianne Vodolian, the cataclysmic August 2020 explosion that disfigured Beirut and killed more than 200 people makes voting an even more sacred duty.

"We are against the regime that ruled us for 30 years, robbed us and blew us up," said the 32-year-old, a spokesperson for the families of blast victims.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

Originally published on France24

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