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Lebanon's first post-collapse elections unlikely to bring desired change

Lebanon's first post-collapse elections unlikely to bring desired change
Bank customers clash with Lebanese army soldiers during a protest Tuesday outside the Lebanese parliament in downtown Beirut, as customers demand that they be allowed to withdraw their deposits that have been blocked amid the economic crisis in the country. Photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE

BEIRUT, Lebanon, April 26 (UPI) -- Getting rid of Lebanon's well-entrenched corrupt and inept ruling political class, accused of being responsible for bringing the country almost deliberately to collapse and impoverishing its population, is unlikely to happen at the upcoming parliamentary elections, analysts and experts say.

The May 15 legislative elections will be the first since street protests on Oct. 17, 2019, turned into a popular, cross-sectarian uprising and unleashed widespread anger against the country's political leaders, most of whom have been in power for more than 30 years.

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The protesters kept taking to the streets for months to demand their ouster to no avail. They faced violent militia attacks and intimidation and police crackdowns. With the outbreak of COVID-19, they were forced to stay home because of the repeated lockdowns.

Then came the Aug. 4, 2020, blast at the Beirut port that killed more than 200 people and destroyed large parts of the city, coupled with the ever-deteriorating living conditions that shattered the hopes and lives of an exhausted population.

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For the past 2 1/2 years, the Lebanese have had to struggle with growing poverty and unemployment, a dramatic decline in state services, and skyrocketing prices of food, gasoline and diesel fuel that depleted their savings amid strict bank restrictions.

The worst is that they have to survive with barely two hours of electricity per day supplied by the state company.

In a normal country, that would be more than enough to bring down the ruling leaders.

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Unfortunately, that is not the case in Lebanon because of its political confessional system, systemic impunity, the heavily armed and powerful Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah, and geopolitical conditions in a changing Middle East region.

The parliamentary elections, however, remain the only available democratic tool to achieve any kind of change. The other option is another destructive civil war that no one wants and everybody fears.

"It is hard to predict a radical change through the elections. ... This could have happened after the Oct. 17 Revolution, the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion and the revolution forces turning into an organized movement, and this did not happen," Antoine Haddad, an academic and political activist, told UPI. "What we could now hope is partial change."

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Haddad explained that the "revolution forces," which mostly emerged from the civil society, are running the elections without proper organization or clear political program under a political law that is "more suitable to the forces in power because it was drafted along very strong confessional and sectarian lines that prevent the 'changing forces' to express their strength and win a large number of seats even if they were organized or succeeded in unifying their ranks."

The 2017 electoral law is indeed one of the main problems facing the voters and obstructing the desired change in the country.

According to Dayana el Baba, a senior program coordinator at the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, this law does not guarantee the "dynamics of change" or provide "equal opportunities" for the various candidates -- not even a female quota.

"The [electoral] law has so many limitations that prevent fundamental change in the elections results," El baba told UPI, adding that the deteriorating economic conditions, high transportation cost, little understanding of the confusing elections law, intimidation and expected violence would impact the voting.

While the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections is trying to monitor the elections based on specific criteria, el-Baba noted that all the signs do not indicate that the elections will be a democratic one and thus "the traditional parties will benefit from it."

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Despite that the preparations are continuing to hold the elections on time and vote for a new 128-member parliament divided equally between Muslims and Christians for a four-year-term, there is no guarantee that they will take place.

Sam Menassa, a political analyst and former executive director of the La Maison du Futur research institute, did not rule out the possibility of postponing or cancelling the elections although "there are 100 reasons to hold them, each party for its own reasons."

"The ruling class for sure has interest in holding the elections if they guarantee they will secure the same majority or more in the new parliament," Menassa told UPI. "The opposition is big and diverse, each saying that they could achieve something ... with especially the Oct. 17 Revolution or civil society candidates trying to prove themselves."

Menassa said the elections will then be like "a clearance certificate" for the ruling class that would give them and Hezbollah more legitimacy and control over the crisis-ridden country.

He reflected growing fears that this would mean changing Lebanon's political and economic system and way of life.

"They could possibly make constitutional amendments that would create a new system in harmony with their political and economic aspirations," he said.

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With the Shiites, led by Hezbollah, running the elections in one firm bloc and the Sunnis, Christian opposition parties and the "revolution" candidates divided and dispersed in dozens of electoral lists, it is impossible to expect any real change.

"It needs a miracle," Menassa said, adding that even if Hezbollah opponents win, they won't be able to rule as they failed to do when they won the majority in the parliament twice since 2008.

"Hezbollah is strong enough to the extent that it cannot be uprooted without a civil war... and no one wants a civil war in the country or another crisis in the region," he noted.

The sad reality is that there is no alternative to the ruling corrupt class and to Hezbollah, at least for the time being.

"Those have a popular base which offered services over many long years to their supporters. Hezbollah has been helping his followers for 30 to 40 years, and so they will not abandon it now because there is no alternative," said Riad Tabbarah, Lebanon's former ambassador in Washington.

Tabbarah expected Hezbollah and the ruling class to win 90% of the parliament seats, while the opposition and "outside powers" hope that there will be "a nucleus" formed by new candidates in the parliament that would be able to do some reforms, but "they are not the ones "who would save the country."

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"The only hope is an outside settlement, as none of the influential forces in the Middle East -- the U.S., France and Iran -- has interest in Lebanon's total collapse. ... They will keep on trying [to change the current political class], threatening to impose more sanctions and provide life-saving assistance," he told UPI.

Ibrahim Mneimneh, an architect who is running for the Sunni seat in Beirut on a list that gathers candidates from various "revolution" and civil society groups, doesn't expect that the new emerging political forces would "turn the table, as this won't happen."

"It is not about change, but beyond that creating a popular objection movement in the whole country," Mneimneh told UPI.

Even with some members in the new parliament, they hope to start make a difference.

"Imagine if we have a bloc of 10 deputies in the parliament to voice opposition and create objection," he said. "This is not easy ... but we will try with all the means to make our voice loud and impose solutions that could be fair to the people."

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