Lebanese are having their first parliamentary elections in 9 years — and they’re not impressed

  • Lebanon has been engulfed by a refugee crisis which has seen more that 1 million displaced Syrians stream over its borders.
  • Parties have sought strategic — and often superficial — alliances based on local dynamics in order to maximize votes.
  • Many Lebanese are resigned to the idea that patronage networks and unchecked nepotism will remain the norm.
Joseph Eid | AFP | Getty Images

Voters will head to the polls across Lebanon Sunday to choose their parliament for the first time in nine years, after prolonged political gridlock and three vote postponements.

But they're not particularly optimistic about it.

Since its last election, Lebanon has been engulfed by a refugee crisis which has seen more that 1 million displaced Syrians stream over its borders, overwhelming the country of just 4 million. It suffered an ongoing waste management crisis during which trash piled up in city streets, went two years without an effective government, experienced a sharp rise in public debt, witnessed multiple terrorist attacks, and had its prime minister temporarily resign in what many described as a kidnapping.

But what's stayed consistent, many Lebanese say, is entrenched corruption, cronyism and political deadlock that's prevented the government from fixing its most pressing problems. And the new elections — so far — don't appear promising.

'You scratch my back, I scratch yours'

"Lebanese politicians messed up," Carmen Geha, an assistant professor of public administration at the American University of Beirut (AUB), told CNBC via phone. Much of the frustration stems from a new and complicated voter law. It basically requires voters to cast two votes: one for a whole list, or alliance, of particular candidates, and then one for a preferred individual candidate out of that list, and seats are then allocated proportionally.

Parties have therefore sought strategic — and often superficial — alliances based on local dynamics in order to maximize votes. Voters say the system ensures whoever is most powerful among each list will simply hold onto power.

"People are likely to vote for the big guys — it discourages small, independent groups and women and favors existing male leadership," said Geha. She and other voters lament the lack of emphasis on national policy issues in this contest, saying it instead is focused on localized interests and clientelism.

"It's a 'you scratch my back, I scratch yours' kind of election," Geha said.

Nonetheless, she still believes people will come out and vote, thanks to a new surge in independent and civil society-linked candidates.

Lebanese politics: A quick run-down

Thanks to its incredibly diverse demography of more than 18 religious communities, Lebanon employs a system of consensus government, where political power is divided between its main Sunni, Shiite and Christian groups. Unsurprisingly, this often makes it hard to get things done.

Lebanon's legislature is equally divided among Christians and Muslims, but contains more than 20 different political parties that generally identify themselves along sectarian lines. Its biggest party is currently the Future Movement, led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim. The next biggest parties are the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party; the Amal party, which is Shia Muslim; and Shia militant-political group Hezbollah.

No single party has ever won more than 12.5 percent of seats. Seventy-seven lists across 15 districts have been registered for the election this year, and the parliament will go on to choose the country's prime minister and governing coalitions in a complex process that can take up to a year or more.

Newcomers: Women and youth running in record numbers

Lebanon has seen a massive increase in civil society participation and youth voters — 800,000 young people will be casting ballots for the first time on Sunday. There is also a record number of women running, representing 111 out of the 976 candidates registered.

"People will go out and vote because there's higher competition than before," said Geha. "(The election) may be disappointing people, but I think they will come out and vote."

An alliance of 11 civil society groups across different ages and religious sects — which is called the National Coalition — aims to disrupt the traditional balance of power and "create a new political class" that shares the grievances of the average Lebanese citizen, the group's leadership has said.

What's most likely to happen?

But despite the entrance of new players in the elections, their chances of defeating well-entrenched political factions are slim, said Keren Uziyel, a Lebanon analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Incumbent Saad Hariri is expected to lead the next government. And voters believe it will continue existing as a "finely balanced coalition taking in different sectarian groups" rather than significantly changing, according to Uziyel.

Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri (L) greets his supporters upon his arrival at his home in Beirut on November 22, 2017. Hariri, back in Beirut after a mysterious odyssey that saw him announce his resignation in Saudi Arabia, told cheering supporters that he was staying.
STR | AFP | Getty Images
Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri (L) greets his supporters upon his arrival at his home in Beirut on November 22, 2017. Hariri, back in Beirut after a mysterious odyssey that saw him announce his resignation in Saudi Arabia, told cheering supporters that he was staying.

Many Lebanese are resigned to the idea that patronage networks and unchecked nepotism will remain the norm. In 2017, Transparency International ranked Lebanon 143 out of 180 countries on its Corruption Perception Index, with a higher number reflecting a more corrupt country.

"We see the same people coming back, and if it's not them it's their children or family members," said Fouad Zmokhol, president of the World Association of Lebanese Business People, speaking to CNBC from Beirut.

"We have major issues. Our debt ratio is increasing, our growth is still very low, we have very high unemployment," Zmokhol described, adding that he hoped for economic reforms from the government. At 156.1 percent, Lebanon's debt-to-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio is the third-highest in the world.

"On the ground there are many financial and liquidity challenges, but this would be worse if we didn't have elections," he said. "We have to build our strategy on some hopes, but at the same time we have to be cautious. So it's a cautious optimism."

What is at stake?

The aftermath of the vote — particularly negotiations over the government's formation — will be crucial. This could take several months to a year or more, analysts say, and that instability could lead to the kind of crisis that saw Hariri temporarily resign in November.

Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah party parade to mark the last day of Ashura ceremony in Beirut.
Aziz Taher
Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah party parade to mark the last day of Ashura ceremony in Beirut.

Hezbollah's performance is also key. The group has been expanding its regional paramilitary activities in places like Syria thanks to sponsor state Iran, but its increased influence in Lebanon stokes resentment from Sunnis and other groups. Hezbollah is significantly stronger than the Lebanese Army.

If it gains more influence, regional experts say, it could push for confrontation with Israel, raising the risk of military conflict and dragging Lebanon into a war not unlike the violent Lebanon War of 2006.

So one can hardly blame Lebanese voters who are disenchanted with their leaders and want more effective change. From the sounds of it, this vote and the prevailing leadership aren't going to bring it to them.

The AUB's Geha seemed to sum up a broader sentiment in the country. "The Lebanese have been through conflict and war, they're not stupid," she said. "There has to be a proper alternative."