Lebanon’s Voters Would Do Well to Support the Forces of Change

On May 15, resident Lebanese go to the polls to elect a new 128-member parliament to replace the one elected four years ago. Given the right to vote in 2018, expatriate Lebanese registered for this round have already cast their votes at diplomatic missions around the world. According to early reporting, turnout in the diaspora was an impressive 60 percent—with some 130,000 casting their votes out of about 225,000 registered. Many were expected to vote for opposition candidates from among a new and energized movement of activists and political newcomers. These have reflected and voiced frustration and disillusionment with old-time political elites believed to have precipitated Lebanon’s dire conditions, and have promised a new agenda for political, economic, and social reforms.

But considering the traditional elites’ degree of entrenchment in the political system and the economy, it would be folly to predict their utter defeat. A recent study of voter preferences indicated that while forces of change will garner good support from electors—preferences vary across different areas and constituencies—traditional political forces will maintain their upper hand. Reasons abound. Sectarian polarization, clientelist networks and relations, disillusionment, and fear of change are some of the factors assuring the continuation of a corrupt edifice that has withstood prior challenges and, indeed, got stronger with the weakening of the forces for change.

Boycotting the election is another factor that not only ensures said continuation but may also lead to strengthening the hand of Hezbollah by giving many of its allies an edge over their opponents. This is likely to be the case if the country’s Sunnis who traditionally supported former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement sit out this round after he decided to suspend his political activities, however temporarily. Hezbollah and its Shia twin, the Amal Movement of Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, are indeed counting on a low turnout among their competitors’ partisans so that they can maintain their political dominance in parliament and in the executive branch. This dominance is seen by many Lebanese as perpetuating the status quo and further weakening Lebanon’s political and economic relations with the Arab world, especially the Gulf countries, which is a main reason for the deterioration in living conditions in the country.

The best hope in this round, however, is the election of newcomers to the legislative body to both influence and enact legislation and expose the rot at the heart of Lebanese democracy. This hope lies not only in the expatriates who already made their voices heard but in the majority of voters residing in Lebanon and experiencing the current deterioration first-hand. It is they who will determine whether they use their democratic right to choose the tried-and-true traditional leaders or allow newcomers—albeit untried and perhaps inexperienced, but full of modern ideas about politics and the economy—to participate in charting Lebanon’s future course.

On the other hand, the upcoming parliamentary election should not be seen as a waste of time, energy, or money—with the latter in desperately short supply—even if the traditional political forces remain in charge. The mere exercise in democracy is an important reminder to the Lebanese of their agency; that they are the only ones responsible for deciding their future, for good or bad. (Incidentally, it will also be an incentive for others in the region to think of the importance of a democratic alternative to authoritarian rule, no matter the outcome.) In essence, it is up to the Lebanese to give legitimacy to their representatives, even if they choose those who have failed them time and again. Only by repeating the exercise will they, first, continue to consecrate this pivotal political role and, second, learn from it. If, as previously, they return to power the same people who have betrayed their trust, they only have themselves to blame.

Beyond exercising their democratic right to choose their representatives, the Lebanese on May 15 are called upon not to re-commit themselves to a course they took before but have been decrying, especially since the October 2019 popular uprising. As has been said in similar situations, elections have consequences, and in Lebanon, this round may very well have serious ones if voters fail to make the right choices.

First, it would be folly for Lebanese voters to entrust dealing with the economic and currency collapse to the same coterie of politicians, bankers, businessmen, and middlemen who have exploited the huge loopholes in Lebanese capitalism to enrich themselves at the expense of the majority of the population. If they do that, Lebanon’s voters will make it even harder to implement the necessary changes to address the rampant individual and institutional corruption that led to the current state of collapse. They also will be making it harder for regional and international donors and lenders to agree to supply the needed capital for funding the recovery for which everyone is waiting.

Second, Lebanese voters must think about how to use their vote to effect fundamental changes in the country’s confessional formula of government that has led to political inertia and a corrupted scramble for dividing the state’s spoils among sectarian elites. The upcoming election is an opportunity to choose new faces to parliament instead of those who have used the legislative chamber to perpetuate their dominance and deprive the country’s young, educated, and dedicated citizens from contributing to political, economic, and social development. Without change, Lebanon’s political system will remain the strait jacket it has always been, limiting political innovation while re-creating the conditions that have always led to social strife and frustration.

Third, voters in Lebanon should be cognizant that their choice in this round of parliamentary election may very well determine the identity of the new president to be chosen next October, following the expiration of the term of the incumbent, Michel Aoun. As chief executive, the new president must be the true and honest arbiter between contending political forces with different and competing agendas. What adds to the importance of the presidential choice is the fact that Lebanon in October could be taking tentative steps toward a desperately needed recovery if regional and international donors and lenders finally approve a targeted stimulus package for the country. A parliamentary majority in which the forces of change play a pivotal role will be essential for electing the right president who is capable of helping said recovery and pulling Lebanon out of the abyss in which it finds itself.