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Crisis-hit Lebanon goes to polls but few expect major change

Lebanese women line up to vote for the parliamentary election at a polling station in the capital Beirut's southern suburbs, on May 15, 2022. ©AFP

Beirut (AFP) - Lebanon held its first election Sunday since a painful economic crisis dragged it to the brink of becoming a failed state, a major test for new opposition groups bent on ousting the ruling elite. 

But few observers expected a seismic shift, with all levers of political power firmly in the hands of traditional sectarian parties and an electoral system seen as rigged in their favour.

Lebanon shares power among its religious communities, and politics is often treated as a family business.By convention, the president is a Maronite Christian, the premier a Sunni Muslim, and the parliament speaker a Shiite.

"We tried this current political class before, and now is the time to bring in new faces," said 28-year-old Beirut voter Nayla after casting her ballot.

A new generation of independent candidates hopes to kindle the kind of change that a 2019 protest movement failed to deliver, and looked likely to do better than the single assembly seat they clinched last time.

But most of parliament's 128 seats are expected to remain in the grip of the entrenched groups blamed for the country's woes -- chiefly the economic downturn that is the worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Turnout in the election was low, with only about 25 percent of registered voters casting their ballots by 3:00 pm, according to the interior ministry.

"It seems almost impossible to imagine Lebanon voting for more of the same," said Sam Heller, an analyst with the Century Foundation. "And yet that appears to be the likeliest outcome."

Years of crisis

Lebanon's crisis has been so severe that more than 80 percent of the population is now considered poor by the United Nations, with the most desperate increasingly attempting perilous boat crossings to flee to Europe.

The Lebanese pound has lost 95 percent of its value, people's savings are blocked in banks, the minimum wage won't buy a tank of petrol and mains electricity comes on only two hours a day.

Deepening the country's woes, much of the capital was devastated by the deadly August 2020 explosion of volatile chemicals that had been left for years in a portside warehouse, one of the largest non-nuclear blasts ever recorded.

Top political barons have stalled an investigation into the disaster, and legal proceedings against the Central Bank governor over alleged financial crimes are equally floundering.

Lebanon, once described as the Switzerland of the Middle East, ranked second-to-last behind Afghanistan in the latest World Happiness Index released in March.

The army deployed across the country Sunday to secure the election, which Lebanon's international donors have stressed is a prerequisite for financial aid crucial to rescue it from bankruptcy.

After an underwhelming campaign stifled by the all-consuming economic turmoil, voting was only disrupted by minor incidents in some polling stations.

'Getting back our Lebanon'

Despite government assurances that polling stations would have power on election day, local media reported blackouts in some centres.

Videos shared online showed people sporting their candidate's colours and shepherding voters into polling booths, continuing a decades-old trend of vote buying.

At one candidate's rally in the northern city of Tripoli, some well-wishers disappointed by the lack of cash handouts made off with the plastic chairs.

The outgoing parliament was dominated by the Iran-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah and its two main allies, the Shiite Amal party of speaker Nabih Berri, who has held the job since 1992, and President Michel Aoun's Christian Free Patriotic Movement.

One of the most notable changes in the electoral landscape is the absence of former prime minister Saad Hariri, which leaves parts of the Sunni vote up for grabs by new players.

For many voters, the election was a chance to vent their anger at the entire ruling elite.

"These elections are first and foremost a means of rooting out this political class and getting back our Lebanon," said Shadi, a 38-year-old whose flat was destroyed in the port explosion.

Like many others who posted pictures on social media Sunday, he chose to dip his middle figure in the bottle of electoral blue ink after casting his ballot.