“Who are you voting for?” a man is asked, according to the latest joke in Lebanon. “For whoever promises to get us out of the crisis,” he answers. “But they all promise that,” comes the response. “Oh, then for whoever pays me more – a lot more than last time.”
Sunday's general election has yielded a plethora of jokes and video clips where candidates deliver fat envelopes to “activists” – mukhtars and strongmen who can deliver votes. One woman told the media that she was offered a cellphone and money to vote for a certain candidate.
Beirut neighborhoods, meanwhile, are prowled by party hacks with lists of people who “need assistance.” TV stations charge for interviews with candidates, and money is no issue when it comes to funding a campaign.
The sense you get is that this election may not solve Lebanon’s problems, but at least it will get some people a little money for taking part in the democratic process.
The election was originally scheduled for March, but it was pushed back to May 15 by President Michel Aoun, who is due to end his term in October. According to Aoun’s calculations, the later the vote, the longer the gridlock. Parliament, which elects the president, won't be quick to reach a majority to elect a new president, keeping Aoun in office.
At least part of Aoun’s prediction is likely to come true. A full 718 candidates on 103 slates are competing in the election, of whom 284 are opposition members or independent candidates. The president, meanwhile, appoints the prime minister.
But the complex election law passed in 2017 and first employed in 2018 has proved that the good intentions behind the law aren't enough to save Lebanon from itself.
In 2019, during protests amid the slumping economy and government corruption, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned. And in August 2020 came the huge explosion at the Beirut port, leaving over 200 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned; only a year later was a new prime minister appointed, billionaire Najib Mikati.
In the meantime, Lebanon must hope that enough electricity will flow to keep the polling stations and tabulation centers running. The interior minister says he'll do all he can to have enough generators in place.
Power outages at critical moments such as the closing of the polls or the tabulation process may get the results canceled in some precincts, stoke claims of election rigging and even lead to a re-vote in those precincts, prolonging the entire process.
But even if everything goes well, it will take time to ratify the results amid the expected claims of bribery, miscounts and voter intimidation. And the main task will simply be to figure out who won each district, because the allocation of seats depends not just on the candidates’ popularity but also on their religion.
Each district has not only a certain number of seats but also a number allotted to each of the main sects – the Sunnis, Shi’ites, Druze and Christians. For example, if a district has three seats allocated to Christians, the three highest Christian finishers win those seats.
Anyway, no sect can gain a parliamentary majority alone. According to Lebanon’s constitution, the Christians and Muslims each hold 64 seats, and within the Muslims, it’s 27 seats for the Sunnis, 27 for the Shi’ites, eight for the Druze and two for the Alawites. Among the Christian seats, 34 go to the Maronites and the rest to other denominations. This division is part of the 1989 Taif Agreement that helped end the civil war.
But these restrictions haven't stopped the political and financial elites from forming corrupt coalitions and divvying up budgets, state-owned companies and top positions based on a sectarian formula with no regard for the qualifications of the officeholders.
Even after Sunday's election, and despite the new election law, the system isn't expected to change. The old parties and elites will continue to run the country, and from their ranks will come the next prime minister, whom the constitution says must be a Sunni. But this time, alas, the Sunni community might trigger a crisis.
In March, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, considered the country's top Sunni politician, shocked the Lebanese political world by quitting politics and calling on his followers to stay away from the polls as well. Without significant Sunni participation and a clear Sunni leader, the 27 Sunnis in parliament will flounder.
More importantly, Aoun will find it easy to appoint a Sunni prime minister who won't challenge him and will be acceptable to Hezbollah. Hariri’s partner, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, has urged Sunnis to vote, but opinion polls show that only around 30 percent of the Sunni electorate will take part.
The first challenge for the new parliament will be electing a new president or prolonging Aoun’s term; at issue is the identity of the next prime minister. Anyone expecting the process to wrap up within a few weeks, not months, does so at their own risk.
Then there’s the financial clock. With the economic crisis in its fourth year, the country must race to convince the international community to open the aid spigot and save Lebanon from bankruptcy.
The last fumes of the loans the country received during the COVID crisis are wafting away. The central bank has almost no foreign currency left to buy fuel to generate electricity and heat homes. The Lebanese pound has hit rock bottom. Unemployment has topped 50 percent in some districts, and the middle class is becoming extinct.
On the other hand, while the donor countries are willing to release the $12 billion committed to Lebanon four years ago, and the International Monetary Fund will help with a $3 billion loan, both tranches are conditioned on the forming of a government that can start implementing deep legal and economic reforms.
But there's a Catch-22: The implementation of any reform will force the political, sectarian and financial elites to give up some of their fat cash flows. If the government acts against their interests, it won’t be able to function. If it caves, it surely won’t be able to implement the reforms and win the aid.
Still, considerations such as preventing the country’s complete collapse or curbing Hezbollah's power, or aspirations by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France and/or the United States to retain their footholds in Lebanon may play into the new government’s hands even if it doesn’t fully meet the conditions for the aid.
But they know that any such aid will continue to fuel the corruption and maintain the country’s rickety structure, with no chance of repair.