Fears are growing that Lebanese politicians will find excuses to postpone a coming parliamentary election, foreign diplomats and analysts have told The National.
Politicians have maintained the elections will be held on time on May 15 amid the country’s worst economic meltdown.
The international community views the elections as essential if discussions over substantial loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are to continue in a bid to try to salvage Lebanon’s crumbling infrastructure and financial sector.
The US ambassador to Lebanon issued a warning earlier this month that there was “no wriggle room” on the country holding the elections on time. The EU announced on Wednesday that an election observation mission will be sent to the country at the end of next month.
“The EU encourages all political forces to participate in the coming elections and reiterates the importance for the elections to take place, as decided, in mid-May and for them to be inclusive and transparent,” Peter Stano, lead spokesman for external EU affairs, told The National.
The country’s top politicians have repeatedly promised that the elections will take place on time, while at the same time hinting at possible reasons for postponement, such as financing issues or security risks.
In May 2013, the Lebanese parliament pushed back elections a few weeks before they were scheduled.
Some diplomats are cautiously discussing the possibility of EU sanctions, although it remains unclear whether all member states would be in favour. In July, the EU adopted a framework for targeted sanctions, which includes the obstruction of elections as a possible reason.
“There are already strong indications that these elections will not be taking place. There is no interest by those in charge of holding them,” said a senior western diplomat.
“Lebanese politicians currently want it to look like they are doing their best by running on two tracks. One towards May 15, yet at the same time they bring all kinds of excuses into the debate.”
'Suicide' to cancel vote
The National spoke to two MPs, Elie Ferzli, deputy speaker of parliament, and Alain Aoun, a member of the parliament’s largest bloc. Both said there was no doubt that the elections should take place.
“We are in a situation where we need to regain the confidence of the international community and of the Lebanese public,” said Mr Aoun. “It would be suicide to cancel such an important vote.”
However, Mr Ferzli expressed some reservations.
“The only thing that can make elections impossible would be either linked to security [issues] or [anything that can] affect stability in Lebanon. I can’t imagine what, but for example, imagine the Sunni [Muslims] decided to not to be involved in the elections,” he said.
Mr Ferzli seemed unconvinced by statements made by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who is a Sunni, and the country's grand mufti, who both stated they would not call for a boycott of the elections.
The Sunni community’s leader Saad Hariri retired from politics in late January, sparking concern that the country’s sectarian balance would not be respected this year. Sunni voters in Lebanon previously told The National they would abstain from voting in Mr Hariri’s absence.
In a speech on Wednesday, former prime minister Fouad Siniora called on the country's Sunni Muslims to participate in the elections.
“I want to tell all Muslims, and particularly Sunnis, that this is not a crisis of the Sunni community, but rather a national crisis,” he said.
The only time one of the country’s religious communities boycotted a parliamentary election was during the first postwar elections in 1992. Less than a quarter of Lebanon’s Christians, whose leaders had fled or were in hiding, participated.
“You should remember that the Syrians were here and kept stability,” said Mr Ferzli, who is pro-Syrian. Asked what would have happened without Syrian troops, which stayed until 2005, he said: “Civil war. This is Lebanon. It is very delicate.”
Postwar elections held under Syrian occupation were characterised by “gerrymandering, or the redrawing of electoral district boundaries, to ensure the election of pro-Syrian Lebanese candidates”, said Amal Hamdan, an electoral systems and legal frameworks expert.
Ms Hamdan said Lebanese politicians routinely fall back on threats of a civil war as soon as they feel threatened.
Opinions are divided on whether the coming elections represent a real risk to the country's political establishment. Some believe that reformist groups may capitalise on discontent caused by the country's economic crisis, while others, including Mr Ferzli, have issued warnings that traditional parties will remain strongly in place.
“Political parties could come back with a vengeance, knowing that the electoral law is biased in their favour,” said Karim Bitar, a professor at Saint Joseph University in Beirut.
With little hope of real change, voter apathy across all communities is expected to be high. Only 50 per cent of the Lebanese intend to vote, according to a recent poll conducted by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung foundation.
The Economist Intelligence Unit recently downgraded Lebanon to an “authoritarian regime,” meaning, among other things, its elections are not free and fair.
Millions spent on electoral materials
The international community is providing substantial technical support to the elections in an attempt to make sure they go ahead. The EU has donated $6.6 million while the US gave $2 million via the UN.
Most of this is toward the purchase of electoral materials such as 25,000 bottles of indelible ink, 20,000 voting booths and 10,000 Covid-19 protective kits.
“The process is ongoing and the materials are expected to be received in due time for the organisation of the elections,” said the UN Development Programme.
The total amount of money allocated this year to organise elections is deemed to be enough — as long as the funds are distributed properly.
The Interior Ministry is set to receive $18 million, yet local media report that so far less than $2 million, or 40 billion Lebanese pounds, has been unlocked. The Interior Ministry did not answer a request for comment.
The $3 million meant for the Foreign Affairs Ministry to organise elections for the diaspora has yet to be disbursed, said diplomats. They pointed to the minister, Abdallah Bou Habib, asking for help to pay for DHL services to send ballot boxes back to Lebanon for counting. This is estimated to cost $900,000. Mr Bou Habib's press advisor told The National he was too busy for an interview.
Diplomats say they sense worry among Lebanese leaders that they could be the target of EU sanctions over their role in undermining their country’s democratic process. The possibility of sanctions made headlines last September when the EU Parliament urged sanctions on Lebanese officials.
“We saw quite a few people trying to hedge their bets by spreading their money around to different accounts,” said the western diplomat.
Politicians refused to link elections to sanctions.
“We hear talk about sanctions but they have never been discussed in the sense that elections are being held because of fears of sanctions,” said Mr Aoun, a member of the president’s political party, the Free Patriotic Movement.
The EU delegation in Beirut declined to talk about the topic of sanctions. MEP Isabel Santos, who headed an EU delegation during a visit to Beirut in November, was cautious in discussing them.
“Power needs to be legitimated by the vote of the people,” she said. “We need to see how things go with the electoral process.”
MEP Salima Yenbou, who participated in the November visit, said it was “unfortunate” that sanctions had not yet been put into effect.
“What more needs to happen in Lebanon for the European Council to decide that sanctions should be applied?” she asked, pointing to the lack of accountability after the devastating Beirut port blast in August 2020.
“The Lebanese elite that pillaged the country and brought its population to the current catastrophe must be punished,” she said.