Overseas Lebanese vote in key poll with high stakes for crises-hit country

Overseas Lebanese vote in key poll with high stakes for crises-hit country

Politics

Lebanese expats cast their ballots in France and dozens of other countries on Sunday in early voting for the May 15 parliamentary elections. Their numbers have swelled due to the economic crisis and calls for change have multiplied. But can the confessional system, entrenched political interests and opposition divides bring the change most Lebanese seek?

Maroun Hadchity proudly raised his thumb to display the indelible ink indicating the 28-year-old postgraduate student had cast his ballot in Paris in early voting Sunday for the May 15 Lebanese parliamentary elections.

It was also a thumbs-up for the indomitable hope the Lebanese place, time and again, in the democratic process, even as the complicated electoral system in their crisis-hit country routinely fails to deliver the fundamental change they have been demanding for years.


Maroun Hadchity (right) after voting in the Lebanese parliamentary elections in Paris on May 8, 2022.
Maroun Hadchity (right) after voting in the Lebanese parliamentary elections in Paris on May 8, 2022. © Leela Jacinto, FRANCE 24

Lebanon’s 2022 parliamentary elections are the first vote since the onset of an economic crisis and the devastating 2020 Beirut port explosions, which many believe are outcomes of the rampant corruption and chronic mismanagement of the country’s political elites.

Hadchity was one of 194,348 registered overseas voters in 48 countries who were able to cast their ballots in early voting Sunday. Last week, a similar vote for Lebanese expatriates was held on the traditional Friday holiday in nine Arab countries and Iran.

A total of 244,442 Lebanese abroad registered to cast their ballots this year, more than double the number of expats who signed up to vote in the 2018 parliamentary vote – when the country conducted its first-ever overseas vote. France has among the highest number of Lebanese diaspora votes, with around 28,000 eligible voters.

Standing outside the fifth arrondissement town hall in Paris, where he voted exactly a week ahead of the May 15 poll, Hadchity distanced himself from cynics who argued that voting was futile in an election unlikely to unseat Lebanon’s entrenched political elites.

“As a citizen, if everyone says nothing will change, then nothing will change,” he declared empathically. “This nothing will change quote is being disseminated by political parties in government, who have a majority, to discourage people from voting so that nothing will change. But any shift in seats can have an impact on the country’s political direction.”

‘Important year’ for Lebanese diaspora

Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament is currently dominated by the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, which won a majority in the 2018 elections. The Hezbollah group victory four years ago came despite 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 elections.

That was before the country sank into economic misery, one of the world’s worst since the mid-1800s, according to the World Bank. Lebanon’s inflation-battered currency has now lost more than 90 percent of its value, around 80 percent of the population has slipped into poverty and thousands have been forced to flee the country.

Lebanon has long been a source of migration, with many estimates claiming – in the absence of official figures – that more Lebanese people live abroad than within the tiny country, home to some 6.5 million people, including Lebanese and refugees, many having fled conflict in neighbouring Syria.

The current economic crisis has seen an estimated 300,000 people leave the country in just two years, making it the country’s third mass exodus in recorded history, according to the American University of Beirut’s Crisis Observatory.

The figure, most experts believe, would have been higher were it not for the pandemic making it more difficult to find jobs abroad. The freezing of bank accounts of ordinary citizens to prevent a run on the banks has also meant that many Lebanese would like to leave the country, but simply can’t afford it.

“This year is a particularly important one for the diaspora,” explained Karim Emile Bitar, director of the Institute of Political Science at the Saint Joseph University of Beirut. “We have a massive wave of emigration and this time, those who are leaving have the impression that they are basically kicked out by the ruling establishment, that they have no other option but to leave because of the dire economic situation and the unprecedented degree of corruption. They feel that they were fleeing a ruling kleptocracy.”

While the diaspora vote is expected to favour the opposition, Bitar warns that, “it would be an illusion to think that once a Lebanese sets foot in Paris or London he is no longer sectarian, he is no longer affected by the deep polarisation in the Lebanese political arena, and that he will instantaneously renounce his traditional allegiances to the feudal lords and sectarian leaders of the country”.


Nancy, 26, and Sandra, 23, said they voted for the opposition in the May 8 early voting for the 2022 Lebanese general elections.
Nancy, 26, and Sandra, 23, said they voted for the opposition in the May 8 early voting for the 2022 Lebanese general elections. © Leela Jacinto, FRANCE 24

‘Revolution’ fails to unite 

The 2022 vote is also the first major electoral test since a youth-led protest movement from October 2019 vented its rage at Lebanon’s entrenched political class.

The protests were followed by the Beirut port blast, which saw young activists stage an extraordinary relief effort in the absence of state services. The combined crises prompted several activist leaders and groups to enter the political fray in a bid to tackle the nation’s problems.

>> Read more: Beirut blast propels activist from street protests to political action

But the transition from protest movement to political entity in Lebanon has been fraught with bureaucratic hurdles, ideological dilemmas and organisational challenges.  

Coalition building in a country with entrenched political interests operating under sectarian electoral laws – which divides power between religious communities in an antiquated confessional system – is an uphill task.

The challenges include the thorny issue of Hezbollah’s weapons, which give the group a stranglehold on the weak state. While most reformist groups oppose the Shiite paramilitary group’s arsenal, there have been divisions over whether or not to ally with Lebanon’s established anti-Hezbollah political parties, many led by political scions or former civil war-era warlords.

In the end, the dozens of opposition groups — popularly known as the “thawra” or revolution – failed to coalesce into a unified political front.

“Perhaps the greatest disappointment for many Lebanese is the failure of the thawra groups to forge a united front ahead of the elections. There were multiple attempts to find common ground, but the sheer number of groups, big and small, and their different priorities complicated the process. While they agree on the somewhat nebulous strategic aim of ending the sclerotic political system and its leadership, the thawra is often at odds on how to achieve this goal and what an alternative system should look like,” wrote Nicholas Blanford from the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

The absence of a united front has seen the number of independent candidates more than double since the 2018 vote, with opposition and independent candidates making up 284 of the 718 candidates in the 2022 race – up from 124 four years ago, according to the Beirut-based Policy Initiative.

“There was no nationwide thawra coalition and very often, there are several opposition lists in one single district,” said Bitar, referring to the Lebanon’s proportional representative list system in the country’s 15 electoral districts.

“So, it might not be enough to change the political landscape. However for the first time, you have one strong opposition list in almost every one of the 15 districts, so we could see minor breakthroughs here and there,” said Bitar.

Will Hariri’s loss be Hezbollah’s gain?

The biggest shakeup of the 2022 vote is the absence of Saad Hariri, a former prime minister who made a shock announcement in January that neither he, nor his Future Movement party, would run in the May parliamentary vote.

A Sunni Muslim heavyweight on the Lebanese political scene, Hariri felt compelled to resign, it is widely believed, due to his deteriorating relations with Saudi Arabia, which cut ties with Hariri as Hezbollah’s grip tightened.

But Saudi Arabia’s hardline position on Lebanon – a country it has often financially bailed out and politically supported – threatens to benefit its arch Shiite foe, Hezbollah.

Hariri’s withdrawal has left many Lebanese Sunnis feeling disenfranchised with turnout expected to be low, particularly in their stronghold districts.

In the leadup to the May 15 vote, posters urging people to vote have dominated Lebanon’s Sunni majority areas, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli. Nevertheless, around 30 percent of people who voted in Sunni stronghold districts in 2018 have said they will not cast their ballots this year, said pollster Kamal Feghali in an interview with Reuters.

Same issues, different choices

Emerging from the polling booth, Ziad Doueiri, a leading Lebanese film director, did not mince his words when asked why he made his way to Paris’s fifth arrondissement town hall on a grey Sunday morning.


Film director Ziad Doueiri being interviewed by a Lebanese TV station in Paris's fifth arrondissement town hall on May 8, 2022.
Film director Ziad Doueiri being interviewed by a Lebanese TV station in Paris’s fifth arrondissement town hall on May 8, 2022. © Leela Jacinto, FRANCE 24

“I voted simply to get rid of Hezbollah. They have become a huge obstacle and they are behind the deterioration of Lebanon,” said Doueiri, whose oeuvre includes the Oscar-nominated film, “The Insult”, which examines his homeland’s failure to confront civil wartime atrocities and its lasting impact on Lebanon’s sociopolitical fabric.

>> Read more: Life imitates art as Oscar entry exposes Lebanon’s buried history

Voting in Paris from his native Beirut II district, in Sunni-dominated West Beirut, Doueiri had to choose between competing opposition lists in his district. But he was clear on his vision for Lebanon. “We don’t know who are the opposition, we don’t know all the details,” he explained. “But it doesn’t matter, the main issue is to stop Hezbollah from having further control of the country because the situation has become unbearable.”

Hadchity, who moved to France eight months ago for a Master’s degree, agreed with Doueiri’s main concerns.

“The primary issue for me is sovereignty,” said the 28-year-old student, using a Lebanese code for the Iran-Syria interference via its Hezbollah proxy. “The parties in government, the parties that are now holding the country are all headed by Hezbollah. They have participated in the corruption and the stealing of the country’s assets.”

Hadchity’s vote though went for a traditional anti-Hezbollah party, the Lebanese Forces, a Christian-based party headed by Samir Geagea. As a card-holding party member, Hadchity said he campaigned for the Lebanese Forces, which is the second-largest Christian party in the current parliament.

The differing picks by voters joined by a common issue in just one Paris voting station highlights the complicated choices confronting voters in the May 2022 polls.

In France, as in all countries besides Iran and Syria, the overseas Lebanese ballot boxes have been sealed and sent by DHL to Beirut, where they will be stored until the May 15 count in the country’s Central Bank vault.

The storage arrangement prompted snide quips on the empty bank coffers being finally put to use. But Joelle Touma, a Paris-based Franco-Lebanese scriptwriter, expressed gratitude for the ability to participate in the democratic process in a Middle East country that, despite all its challenges, retains vital civic liberties.


Screenwriter Joelle Touma said the overseas vote for the Lebanese 2022 general elections was well organised.
Screenwriter Joelle Touma said the overseas vote for the Lebanese 2022 general elections was well organised. © Leela Jacinto, FRANCE 24

“Although I voted against the forces in power, I have to admit that the elections abroad were very well organised by this administration. It allowed the democratic process to take place, we could vote,” said Touma. “Now, I’m still a bit worried about what’s going to happen with our votes, are they going to reach Lebanon intact? Are they going to be tampered with, although they said they were going to be stored in the Central Bank vault? This, I don’t know and it’s something that worries me a little bit.”

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