World News

In Rare Lebanon Vote, Change Is Sought but Not Expected

Posted May 3, 2018 9:30 p.m. EDT

BAALBEK, Lebanon — Yahya Chamas says he is running in Lebanon’s parliamentary election Sunday because decades of government neglect and corruption have left his district in the hills of northeastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley with shaky infrastructure and its people in poverty.

“People are fed up,” Chamas, a businessman and former member of Parliament, said in an interview at his home. “We hope we can change all these behaviors that don’t lead to development into behaviors that lead to development.”

It’s a popular sentiment, but his chances are slim. While he has struggled to afford billboards and television spots, his main competitors are from established parties including Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful militant group and political party, which owns its own television station. When Hezbollah holds rallies in his district, thousands of loyalists show up.

Voters across Lebanon will vote in parliamentary elections Sunday for the first time in nine years, and many of them are indeed fed up.

The country’s crises are many: 1 million Syrian refugees are straining public services; a shaky economy is increasingly teetering; garbage is piling up; fear is spreading of a new war between Hezbollah and Israel; and the political class has failed to find solutions.

But despite the country’s pride in being a rare Arab democracy, few expect the long-awaited elections to do much to solve its pressing problems.

“Is this going to bring a new government that is able to change things?” said Sami Atallah, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. “No, because we have a system that has successfully undermined all accountability mechanisms. As long as these are not in place, I can’t see how these politicians will be able to deliver to the people.”

Lebanon’s political system is an unwieldy compromise based on sect-based power sharing. Half the seats in Parliament are assigned to Christians and half to Muslims. Most parties are based on sect and their supporters look to them for protection and patronage more than for sound policies. Some are still led by warlords from the country’s 15-year civil war, or their offspring.

Since 2009, the government has collapsed twice and the country went without a president for more than two years because the factions could not agree on one.

There has been no parliamentary election since 2009 because Parliament decided not to have one. An outgoing Parliament was supposed to finish its four-year term in 2013, but decided that conditions were not right for elections to be held, so it effectively re-elected itself — twice.

Since the civil war ended in 1990, parts of the country have been occupied at times by Syria and Israel, keeping the central state weak and allowing powerful figures to divvy up the economy. That dysfunction has spilled into the political system, creating a Parliament that cannot hold the government accountable, a politicized judiciary and a news media that is either heavily partisan or for sale to the highest bidder.

“All these institutions that could play a role in the political system have been co-opted or destroyed, so you end up with confessional representation and no one being held accountable,” Atallah said.

A recent study of the outgoing Parliament found it to be out of step with citizens’ greatest concerns. Out of the 352 laws passed between June 2009 and April 2017, for example, only 31 — 9 percent — related to health, education, water and electricity.

The vote Sunday will include more than 500 candidates competing in 15 districts for 128 seats. The vote will be the first under a new electoral law that supporters say will diminish the focus on sect and allow a wider range of candidates to run. But it is so complicated most voters do not understand it and no one can fully predict what effect it will have.

In one notable change, dozens of women are running. In 2009, only 12 women ran, winning only four seats. Also new is a coalition of civil society candidates focused on improving services.

“You have new voters, you have new candidates and you have a significantly improved system that we think will bring some new blood into the system,” said Les Campbell, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, who is in Lebanon with a team of observers.

Since the last election nine years ago, 700,000 young people have become eligible to vote and may make their decisions differently than their parents, he said. But Campbell was cautious about how much change to expect.

“I would never underestimate the ability of Lebanon’s power brokers to find a way to get the new law to work in their favor,” he said.

The system still favors big parties and the wealthy. To buy airtime on television stations, candidates pay tens of thousands of dollars per hour.

Pierre El Daher, chief executive of LBCI, one of the country’s most watched stations, said two candidates had spent more than $700,000 with his station during the campaign. Most spent less than $100,000.

Some voters will follow the “devil-you-know” philosophy, worrying that newcomers could bring unforeseen havoc.

“We all hope for change, but we don’t expect it,” said Suha Ghader, a teacher. “In fact, God willing, the same people will get elected because I’m scared of the alternative.” That hampers independent candidates like Chamas, who served in Parliament years ago but was expelled in 1994 because of allegations of drug smuggling, which he denies. (He says the accusation was cooked up by a powerful Syrian politician who was out to get him.)

In the interview, he said he had bought billboards, spent $15,000 for an hourlong appearance on one television station and agreed to pay $25,000 for an hour on another. But when he turned down a morning show, he was offered evening slots that cost twice as much. An hourlong, prime time interview with a popular anchor cost $80,000, he said, more than he could afford.

During the interview, his phone rang. It was a voter asking Chamas how much he would pay for a vote. Chamas said he did not buy votes, thanked the caller and hung up.

It was unclear whether the caller was seeking the highest bidder for his ballot, a common practice in Lebanon, or secretly recording Chamas’ answer to use in an attack post on social media.

Chamas blasted the political class that has long ruled the country as self-serving and corrupt.

“They have been ruling for 30 years, with corruption and without providing services,” he said. “There is no electricity, no roads, no economy. So who is responsible?”

That view is a popular one so the big parties have adopted a similar message.

“The biggest problem in the country is corruption,” said Ali Moqdad, an incumbent from Hezbollah who is also running in Chamas’ district.

When asked what he had done against corruption since entering Parliament in 2005, Moqdad responded, “Nothing.” He blamed Lebanon’s sectarian politics for making such change difficult.

But his party’s power to mobilize was clear an hour later during a large election rally nearby, where Hassan Nasrallah, the party’s leader, implored the crowd via video link to vote. Thousands of people came, despite a violent hailstorm that had left the ground muddy.

Moqdad said 640 Hezbollah members from the area had been killed fighting in Lebanon and Syria in recent years. The party pays monthly stipends to their families, making it unlikely they would vote for anyone else.

After the rally, two women posed for pictures with their young daughters, who both wore white wedding dresses and held framed photos of their fathers, fighters who had been killed in Syria.

“Those who are seeing the martyrs’ photos on the walls of Baalbek, those who sacrificed their lives, should be ashamed of not voting for the Hezbollah list,” said one of the women, Zeinab al-Bazal.