Ailing Lebanon votes for parliament, but major shift unlikely

BEIRUT (AP) — As Lebanon’s economic collapse accelerated six months ago, Abdul-Hamid Yamout lost his job at Beirut’s international airport — and with it a sense of security.

Since then, he has struggled to provide for his family and is constantly worried about the future of his two children. On Sunday, he planned to use the ballot box to punish the ruling class by voting for a list of independents.

“I will give them my vote because they want change,” he said, recalling his participation in nationwide protests against government corruption in 2019.

Yamout, 39, who now sews curtains to survive, was among those who voted for a new parliament on Sunday, hoping to dislodge the entrenched politicians they blame for the crisis.

A new batch of candidates from the protest movement is running against them, hoping to at least make a breakthrough by securing a few seats. But they are divided and lack the money, experience and other advantages of traditional political rulers.

The vote comes against the backdrop of an economic collapse that is rapidly transforming the country and sparking the largest wave of emigration since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

“There are no jobs, they blew us up in the port, I can’t find baby food for my children and can’t treat my elderly parents,” Yamout shouted, referring to a huge explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020 that devastated the city.

Sunday’s vote is the first since Lebanon’s implosion began in October 2019, sparking widespread anti-government protests.

It is also the first election since the port explosion that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts of Lebanon’s capital. The blast, widely attributed to negligence, was caused by hundreds of tons of poorly stored ammonium nitrate igniting in a dockside warehouse.

For many, it is seen as an opportunity to punish the current crop of politicians, most of whom draw their power from Lebanon’s sectarian political system and the spoils taken at the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990. But expectations were low that it would significantly change the political landscape, amid widespread acquiescence that the system had been manipulated to bring back the same powerful political parties.

Turnout seemed low at the beginning of the afternoon, around 27 percent.

The elections, the first since 2018, are also being closely watched to see if the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies can maintain their parliamentary majority amid mounting poverty and hardship.

“I have done what I can and I know the situation will not change 180 degrees,” Rabah Abbas, 74, said after casting his vote in Beirut. He fears that the vote is only symbolic and that after the election, Lebanon will once again be mired in political bickering over the formation of a new government and the election of a new president in October.

Polling stations close at 7pm local time (1600 GMT) and official results are expected on Monday.

The magnitude of Lebanon’s collapse was on full display on Sunday. In the northern city of Tripoli, the poorest in Lebanon, several polling stations were left without electricity as voters, including the elderly, had to climb several stairs to cast their votes. During the vote, voters and election workers were seen using the light from their cell phones to check names and lists.

Mainstream political parties and politicians remained strong during the vote, while opposition figures and civil society activists hoping to remove them from their seats are divided and numerous, creating a confusing electoral landscape for voters.

The money poured in and political parties offered bribes, sandwiches, transportation and other favors to voters.

Yamout said he was offered three million Lebanese pounds (about $110) by one of the political parties in exchange for his vote, an offer he said he categorically declined, saying: “I voted for them in the past and it was a big mistake.”

Since the collapse began, tens of thousands of people like Yamout have lost their jobs, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value and many have left to seek opportunities abroad. Three quarters of the country’s 6 million people, including 1 million Syrian refugees, now live in poverty.

The World Bank has described Lebanon’s collapse as one of the worst in the past 150 years. A UN official who visited Lebanon this week described it as a “failing state” and blamed politicians.

About 718 candidates from 103 lists compete for seats in the 128-member parliament, which is split equally between Muslims and Christians under Lebanon’s power-sharing system. The vote takes place every four years. In 2018, voters gave the powerful Hezbollah and its allies the majority with 71 seats.

Lebanon has more than 3.5 million eligible voters, many of whom will vote in its 15 constituencies.

Reflecting the tensions, fistfights broke out between supporters of Hezbollah and those of the Saudi-backed Christian Lebanese Forces, who are among the most vocal critics of the Iran-armed group. The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, LADE, said its deputies were forced to withdraw from two polling stations after threats by Hezbollah supporters and their allies from the Shia Amal group.

The vote this year comes as the top Sunni political leader, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, suspended his work in politics and called for a Sunni boycott. Hezbollah and its allies wanted to exploit that vacuum.

Showing how ideology and political loyalty often set precedent in Lebanon, Qassim Shtouni, 71, drove all the way from his southern Lebanon village to Beirut to vote. He said he opted for an alliance made up of several mainstream groups, including Hezbollah, President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal group.

Sitting on a plastic chair outside a polling station, Shtouni said the main reason he voted for a Hezbollah-led alliance is “because my vote will be against normalization with Israel”. It noted recent agreements between Israel and the Arab Gulf States.

“Today’s elections in Lebanon are not local elections. It is an international election,” he said, referring to the political struggle between Iran-backed groups and pro-Western factions.

After the election results are announced, Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government will become an interim cabinet until the president asks for consultations with the new MPs, who will choose the next prime minister.

The new parliament will also elect a new head of state after President Michel Aoun’s six-year term ends at the end of October.

Associated Press journalist Lujain Jo provided coverage from Tripoli, Lebanon.

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