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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Lebanon election will test a bruised nation's resilience

The country is used to crises, but its suffering people deserve better

A portrait of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri hangs above a crowded street in central Beirut on May 4, 2018, ahead of Sunday's first legislative elections in nine years. Joseph Eid / AFP Photo
A portrait of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri hangs above a crowded street in central Beirut on May 4, 2018, ahead of Sunday's first legislative elections in nine years. Joseph Eid / AFP Photo

After a nine year wait, a level of excitement and anticipation would be normal.

On Sunday, for the first time since 2009, Lebanon will select 128 members of parliament. A new electoral law last year finally broke a deadlock that had seen polls postponed twice during crises and a period in which the tiny Mediterranean state was pushed to breaking point.

Voter turnout tends to be high when citizens are frustrated: elections are a chance to get rid of leaders who are disliked or deemed incompetent.

Plenty of people feel this way in Lebanon, but its voters will be unable to do either. Starved of a real choice on their ballot papers, they are prepared for more of the same. As a result, most are likely to stay home.

By any standard, the Lebanese government has fallen short. Parliament, unconstitutionally, extended its mandate twice. When a refuse crisis in 2015 led people to demonstrate it was a rare example of public anger. The motto of the protest movement it gave birth to – "You Stink" – could as easily have been referring to the nation’s leaders as to the tons of rubbish that was rotting in the streets.

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More on the election from The National's foreign editor Arthur MacMillan in Beirut:

In Lebanon, women vote but few are chosen

Lebanon paves way to election as regional tension soars

A bloody history that encapsulates Lebanon's woes

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Lebanese politics is currently a mosaic of contradictory alliances, seemingly based on survival above all else. Pledges on policy or delivery of public services are not taken seriously. The refuse crisis has never been properly resolved. The electricity cuts out several times a day. As such there is cynicism among voters.

The country is in stasis, a kind of zombie-like existence in which people are used to getting on with their lives as best they can. But it is perhaps not sustainable, given that the threads joining the various power brokers are loose at best.

Having endured years without a president while various cabinets squabbled among their sectarian constituent parts over who got what from the nation’s resources, 2016 saw a deal presented as a breakthrough. Michel Aoun, having reversed his anti-Syrian stance, became president with the backing of Hezbollah, President Bashar Al Assad and Iran’s ally.

Lebanon by that time had become the country bearing the biggest refugee burden from the civil war in Syria. The fate of those in exile remains unclear such is the fear of death should they return to be ruled by Mr Al Assad, whom they fled in the first place. With Israel targeting Iranian forces in Syria the conflict is boiling.

A portrait of Lebanese Hezbollah movement leader Hassan Nasrallah is fixed on the side of a road in the mainly Shiite Muslim southern suburbs of Beirut on May 4, 2018, ahead of the weekend's legislative elections. Joseph Eid / AFP Photo 
A portrait of Lebanese Hezbollah movement leader Hassan Nasrallah is fixed on the side of a road in the mainly Shiite Muslim southern suburbs of Beirut on May 4, 2018, ahead of the weekend's legislative elections. Joseph Eid / AFP Photo 

Hezbollah fighters and weapons, supplied not from the Lebanese state but from Iran, sit in reinforced bunkers in the south near the Israeli border. The rhetoric from Tehran and Jerusalem becomes ever stronger. The threat of Lebanon being dragged into another war is rising.

Yet apathy is the prevailing mood. Attention has too long been focused on matters outside Lebanon's sovereign borders than within. There is fatigue and disillusionment among the citizenry but also an acceptance that their country is controlled by the bigger players who surround it.

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Lebanese elections 2018: All you need to know

Candidacy, conflict and territorial claims: Lebanon’s election posters

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Despite what seems like a boundless capacity to tolerate chaos and disorder, the resilience of the Lebanese character is not inexhaustible. The politicians I spoke to this week in Beirut said there was much at stake in Sunday's election. There undoubtedly is, including the need to reverse a funding crisis that has left it among the world’s most indebted countries.

But there was near universal acceptance that the result seems preordained. A few seats will be lost here or gained there, was a familiar refrain.

Lebanese prime minister and candidate for parliamentary election Saad al-Hariri greets his supporters in Beirut, Lebanon May 4, 2018. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters
Lebanese prime minister and candidate for parliamentary election Saad al-Hariri greets his supporters in Beirut, Lebanon May 4, 2018. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

The main parties - Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, the Free Patriotic Movement, and the Future Movement - would never admit it but they hedged their bets during a lacklustre campaign. They want to maintain their positions, rather than risk rocking the boat. The speeches were drab and predictable. Bar a few soundbites between rivals, some of which competing television channels decided not to air, there has been an agreement to avoid criticising other factions too heavily.

This is not normal for Lebanon, where people will spend day and night talking about politics.

This year the posters are up, but the spirit of competition is absent.

On voting day in 2009 the withdrawal of Syrian forces four years earlier was still vivid. Political rivalries between the March 14 movement led by Saad Hariri and March 8, a pro-Syrian coalition led by Hezbollah were real. The turnout was 53.37 per cent, according to international monitors.

This time, experts expect it to be lower, possibly below 50 per cent.

"It's a case of grey-white, or white-grey. It won't make a difference," a 40-year-old lawyer in Beirut told me, explaining why he would not vote.

The birth of a civil society movement, presented as a first challenge to established parties, has been praised. Yet privately its leaders say one seat would be considered a victory. "They don’t stand a chance," one pollster told me.

A Lebanese government employee registers the information of an electoral registrar arriving to receive a sealed electoral ballot box containing blank ballots marked for the Lebanese "Israelite" (Jewish) minority -- according to Lebanese confessional voting rules -- at a government office in the capital Beirut on May 5, 2018. Anwar Amro / AFP Photo
A Lebanese government employee registers the information of an electoral registrar arriving to receive a sealed electoral ballot box containing blank ballots marked for the Lebanese "Israelite" (Jewish) minority -- according to Lebanese confessional voting rules -- at a government office in the capital Beirut on May 5, 2018. Anwar Amro / AFP Photo

Mr Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister, is considered the man most likely to pull the country out of its problems. He has good relations with global leaders and, probably more crucially, the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank.

But having left the country and resigned in mysterious circumstances in Saudi Arabia last November, a position he later reversed, he has much to prove. His Future Movement is likely to emerge from today's election with fewer seats than last time, requiring Hezbollah – an arch foe after his father’s death – through consensus, to back his return as prime minister. That will require the blessing of the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and by extension Iran.

The need for a prime minister to compromise with an unelected cleric who spends most of his time in hiding is not much of an advert for democracy, and may be one reason much of the electorate is turned off. Mr Hariri and all those who are elected today should be held to a higher standard than the limp stewardship Lebanon's people have become used to.

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