What to expect from Lebanon's 15 May elections

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6 min read
11 May, 2022
Analysis: Lebanon's incoming government will aim to steer the country out of an economic and political crisis. But who will be leading the ship?

Welcome to The New Arab’s coverage of Lebanon’s General Election 2022 held on May 15, 2022. Follow live updates, results, analyses, and opinion in our special hub here.

On 17 October 2019, millions of Lebanese took to the streets to demand an end to the corrupt governance they had endured for decades. This was Lebanon’s thawra, or revolution, which unbeknownst to anyone at the time would set off a cataclysmic series of events.

Two and a half years later, Lebanon is on the eve of an election. Its streets are not filled with protesters, but with billboards and electoral slogans.

The slogans are lofty and ambitious: 'Return sovereignty'. 'Stop the graft'. 'We will remain so that we can protect and build'. Others are slightly cornier: 'Beirut needs a heart', a large banner hung across Beirut’s downtown reads.

"This is not an election, it's a referendum. The question voters are answering is: ‘Do you want to keep the mafia for the next four years? Yes, or no?"

Lebanon, mired in one of the world’s worst economic crises since 1850, needs more than just campaign promises. Since the thawra, Lebanon’s government – excluding the 13 month period it did not have one – has done virtually nothing, save cut subsidies.

In the meantime, the country and its people have suffered, badly. Over two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, state electricity comes only two hours a day, and prices have skyrocketed while salaries remain stagnant.

Lebanese youth have emigrated en-masse. The General Security Directorate cannot print passports fast enough and municipalities have faced paper shortages as the pace of a national drain brain accelerates.  

The Lebanese people want and desperately need change – but will they vote for it?

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Can the independents pull it off?

In 2019, one chant emerged above the rest. 'Kulun ya3ni kulun'. 'All of them means all of them'. The cry was a promise to hold all of the traditional politicians and parties accountable, and not to let the protest movement dissolve along sectarian lines.

Lebanon’s politics has long been defined by its sectarian dimension, the country carved up into different fiefdoms by sect leaders. The result has been a cartel-like system of rule, where power is monopolised, economic rents split, and outsiders who do not pay homage to the confessional power structure excluded.

This election cycle, however, has seen an explosion of independent candidates who defy traditional sectarian rhetoric.

“In 2018, I could not find two Maronite candidates in the Chouf-Aley area [an area of Mount Lebanon]. Today, there are more than 15,” Fadi Khoury, an engineer and independent candidate for the 2018 parliamentary elections, told The New Arab.

The enthusiasm of the thawra and frustration with the traditional political parties’ handling of the crisis they created has translated into a plethora of independent electoral lists and candidates.

The entrance of so many newcomers comes with its own challenges. A benchmark of whether or not independent candidates would be able to wrest control from establishment candidates was their ability to come together and present a unified front.  

Lebanon protests - GETTY
In 2019, one chant emerged above the rest. 'Kulun ya3ni kulun', 'All of them means all of them'. [Getty]

Candidates were not able to create a unified platform. There are a multiplicity of independent candidates and electoral lists across Lebanon’s 15 electoral districts. This is a far cry from the disciplined campaigns run by Lebanon’s establishment parties and their well-oiled political machines.

There is a risk that voters, many of who are motivated by anger against traditional parties rather than specific political platforms, will split their vote between the different independent lists.

Khoury, who himself refused to run in this week’s election because of a lack of a unified list, said that while it is not a good sign, it might not be a death knell for the opposition.

“This is not an election, it’s a referendum. The question voters are answering is: ‘Do you want to keep the mafia for the next four years? Yes, or no?’” he said.

"Lebanon, mired in one of the world's worst economic crises since 1850, needs more than just campaign promises"

In order to ensure that as many voters as possible answer that question with an emphatic “no,” Khoury and other opposition activists have organised voter guides.

“The biggest party in Lebanon is the Sofa Party. They are radical on WhatsApp and on their TV remotes, but they need to come out and actually vote,” Khoury said.

Even the rosiest picture of the opposition’s chances does not see them winning a majority in Lebanon’s parliament. A 'good' outcome for the opposition would be winning around ten seats and forming a minority bloc, so they could participate in parliamentary debates and have a voice in policy.

Even if they do not upend the political system and squeeze Lebanon’s traditional sectarian parties completely out of the picture, independents could at least open the door for change in Lebanon’s parliament.

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A popular mandate … for unpopular reforms

Lebanon’s current government has taken a laissez-faire approach as the country sunk deeper into the depths of its crisis.

Despite the unfathomable depth of suffering over the last year, the caretaker government led by three-time PM Najib Mikati has largely delayed badly-needed reforms until a new government is elected in May.

The international community has refused to extend meaningful financial aid to Lebanon until these reforms are made. The IMF restarted the negotiation process with the Mikati government in autumn, but despite an announcement that necessary reforms were agreed upon, nothing has been implemented until now.

The upcoming government will inherit these issues, with interest accumulated. How it goes about solving them will be key for questions of accountability and the distribution of financial losses from the crisis.

“If the upcoming government wants to continue with the IMF negotiations, they are obliged to go through the list of reforms the IMF asked for. Especially issuing laws and regulations related to the banking sector,” Dina Abu Zour, a lawyer for the Lebanese Depositor’s Union, told The New Arab.

In the autumn of 2019, Lebanon’s political crisis morphed into a financial crisis, and banks unilaterally froze most accounts without parliament’s approval. Parliament has thus far failed to pass a capital control law and ordinary depositors have effectively lost their savings.

"Even if they do not upend the political system and squeeze Lebanon's traditional sectarian parties completely out of the picture, independents could at least open the door for change in Lebanon’s parliament"

The Mikati government has created draft plans to divide the estimated $69 billion in financial losses between banks and depositors. These draft plans were never adopted, as they were seen as putting the lion’s share of the financial losses on small and medium-sized depositors.

“We can’t go through any financial division of losses unless we first set the responsibilities. The responsibility should go from banks, the Central Bank, the government and then lastly depositors,” Abu Zour said.

“Depositors should not be held responsible for this financial crisis and there should be a solution that does not cause any more haircuts on their deposits,” she added.

Whichever government takes power next Sunday will enjoy a renewed popular mandate, and will likely have more confidence in undertaking economic reforms. Many of these, such as further cutting subsidies, will be deeply unpopular.

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A popularly elected government, however, will have more legitimacy to undertake these reforms and the international community will be more willing to engage with them.

The tone for Lebanon’s path out of this crisis, then, will be set by the incoming government.

“If the same faces win on Sunday, accountability will become a dream. The same people who caused this crisis will not hold themselves accountable for it. We have to make some independent candidates reach the parliament so we have a group there fighting for accountability,” Abu Zour said.

William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.

Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou