Lebanon is holding legislative elections in a context of serious economic crisis. Overview of the challenges for power and the candidates who are trying to replace it.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Lebanon is a country in free fall. A United Nations report released this week criticized the Lebanese government for its “ruthless destruction of the country’s economy”. The local currency has lost almost all of its value in recent years. Food prices have spiraled out of control and power cuts are frequent. It is in this context that the country will organize legislative elections this weekend.
And here to tell us more about it, Arezou Rezvani from NPR, who is in Beirut. Hi Arezou.
AREZOU REZVANI, HERBS: Hello.
CHANG: Alright. So, do you feel that the economic crisis is the main issue motivating voters in this election cycle?
REZVANI: That’s how I feel. I think there are two big issues on the minds of voters these days; first is the economy. People here have a hard time getting basic foods like milk and cooking oil and finding some medicines. Withdrawing money from the bank is no longer a simple task here. Sometimes you have to wait in line for hours to get a few hundred dollars. The poverty rate in the country has risen from 30% to an astonishing 80%.
And what goes hand in hand with this economic crisis, we will tell you here, is corruption. For years, the government and the banking industry mismanaged and wasted cash reserves. And finally, a few years ago, the whole system collapsed. And so people here have been living with those consequences ever since.
CHANG: That’s right. This will therefore be the first election since the beginning of this economic crisis. Does it seem that there is a greater appetite now for new parties, new candidates?
REZVANI: Yes, there are. But the question is, can they break through the establishment? There are many more opposition parties and newer, fresher faces in this cycle than in the past.
I spent time with some of the opposition parties. Rania al-Masri is a member of a progressive party called Citizens in a State. It’s a bit like Bernie Sanders’ campaign – very young, very diverse. Here’s how she described her party’s positions to me at a recent campaign event.
RANIA AL-MASRI: We defend the total separation of Church and State, and we reject the bankers’ Ponzi scheme. We are in the rejection of the sectarian political system. We recognize that we cannot solve this problem piecemeal.
REZVANI: So clearly did not hesitate to challenge the banking sector. And you can hear him also offer a rather provocative idea of a more non-sectarian political system. And given how desperate the situation is here right now, it’s kind of created an opening for parties to come up with bigger and bolder ideas, you know, bolder when you look at support and alliances that groups like Hezbollah have established here over the years.
Chang: Yeah. Well, how difficult is it for new candidates to get elected in the Lebanese political system?
REZVANI: So the voting process here is definitely not set up to accommodate political newcomers, and there are several reasons for that. There is the fact that here in Lebanon, by law, you must vote in your ancestral home. And with hyperinflation, it’s very expensive for people to get around when they can’t even afford a full tank of gas. This came out of a conversation I had with Nina Jamal, owner of a clothing store here in Beirut.
NINA JAMAL: I can’t vote because I vote in southern Lebanon. To go there, I need 1 million lira, about 50 dollars, to go there and back. I can’t afford it.
REZVANI: So some of the most cash-strapped people may have to sit out this election. On top of that, it is also difficult for some contestants to get airtime here as TV stations charge for appearances.
But more than anything, I think it’s Lebanon’s model of power-sharing government, which helped end Lebanon’s civil war years ago, that’s a bit of a problem. It was designed to guarantee representation for Sunnis, Shiites and Christians, but it froze sectarian parties in place. And what emerged was a system of political gerrymandering, and it allowed sectarian parties to seize and retain power. All of this combined limits a new candidate’s chances of being elected. And that leaves a lot of people here skeptical that this election is going to change a lot.
CHANG: This is NPR’s Arezou Rezvani talking to us from Beirut about the upcoming legislative elections in Lebanon. Thank you very much Arezou.
REZVANI: Thank you.
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