Sectarianism reigning supreme? Lebanon’s 2022 Parliamentary elections

Celine Madaghjian is a second year International Relations student at Kings College London. She believes that understanding the implications of the region’s current and rapidly evolving politics is vital to our understanding of International Relations. She is passionate about analysing the sectarianism and geopolitics of the Middle East, as well as the effects of GCC relations on the regional and international scale. 

The Lebanese government and its political elites have been unable to solve the humanitarian and economic crises that have plagued Lebanon since 2019. Due to corruption and a sectarian system that has existed since pre-modern Lebanon’s formation, the same elites and political parties have been advocating policies that suit their personal and sectarian interests for decades. Nevertheless, expatriates in more than 50 countries have taken to the polls on the 6th and 8th of May for the 2022 Parliamentary elections, and the voter turnout demonstrates that this is the first step towards change. The next step lies within the hands of the local population, as their voting takes place in Lebanon on May 15.  

There are 18 religious sects in Lebanon, and the line between politics and religion is blurred. The Lebanese people have been divided along communal lines since sectarianism’s creation in the 19th century by Ottoman rule and European intervention, and it was institutionalised into modern Lebanon’s electoral system after independence (1943) and the Taif Accords (1990) that ended the 25 years Civil War. For example, sects in Lebanon manage their own religious courts, personal status laws, and social welfare programs. It follows that the country’s electoral system is based on power-sharing. Within Parliament, there is an equal distribution of seats among Christians and Muslims, and each religious sect is given a specific number of seats within this distribution.  

Thus, sectarian elites tend to serve the members and supporters of their political parties for their sectarian and personal gain. To stay in power and maintain their seat in Parliament, elites use social welfare to reward their supporters and buy votes. For example, many parties such as the Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement are known to pay expatriates to vote for their party during elections. Corruption is also highly prominent. Public funds are used for personal rather than governmental affairs, and these elites have channelled billions of dollars into secret offshore tax-havens. With regards to Parliamentary law-making and provision of the executive branch, there is little debating, revising and passing of laws. Minutes of meetings are also not made to the public. 

Nevertheless, since the October Revolution in 2019, the Lebanese people have become more unified in their advocation for change. With the desire to deconstruct the sectarian system and remove current political elites from their positions of power, this sentiment has grown stronger given the exacerbating humanitarian and economic crisis. With a 90% devaluation of the Lebanese pound against the U.S. dollar, the financial crisis has been named one of the worst three financial crises in the past 150 years by the World Bank. In effect, people do not have access to basic necessities such as food, shelter, 24/7 powered electricity and healthcare. Hospitals are unable to efficiently function given the power outages, and pharmacies are unable to import life-saving medicines such as those for cancer treatment. 

As a result, there is a growing number of Lebanese people who have shown that they are willing to vote for a new body of political leaders in this year’s 2022 Parliamentary elections. What is new about these candidates is that they consist of young individuals and activists whose numbers have doubled since the last elections in 2018. “Independent” coalition blocs are running for seats to replace the current elites as well as their political parties that have been ruling for decades, and to solve the current crises of the country. 

The enthusiasm for an improved Lebanon has been most evident in the expatriate’s voting in the elections that took place on May 6 and 8 in more than 50 countries. The overall turnout was 60%, approximately three times greater than that of the 2018 elections. The majority of these voters consist of the young expats who fled Lebanon in the past two years given the economic and humanitarian crises. For example, in the United Arab Emirates, there was a 73% voter turnout compared to 66% four years ago. In the lines waiting for their turns to vote, many Lebanese citizens were chanting “change is coming!”. Their turnout has shown a glimpse of hope and a potential step to a better Lebanon. 

However, one must not assume that the people’s sectarian divide has been alleviated. In Berlin, supporters of the Shiite Amal Movement wore the political party’s t-shirts and waved its flag while waiting for their turns to vote, whereas in London the same occurred with the Free Patriotic Movement’s supporters. In Lebanon, elites continue to manipulate the economic crisis to buy votes as demonstrated by MP candidate Fouad Makhzoumi’s announcement to offer citizens “cheap hairdos”. 

Therefore, sectarianism is not something that is going to be quickly alleviated. It has been historically and socially constructed into the Lebanese electoral system and everyday life. What one can be certain of is that people’s frustration with the current state of Lebanon has never been more prominent. As demonstrated in the past week, expatriates are voicing their desire to elect new faces into Parliament as well as to mitigate the current crises. The same enthusiasm and desire for change are also expected with the Lebanese currently living in Lebanon, whose voting will take place on the 15th of May. These elections may not cause the system’s collapse given that sectarian loyalty remains in many portions of the country, however, they are the first step to doing so. 

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