At a town-hall meeting in the Lebanese village of Kfeir, nestled under the snowy peaks of Mount Hermon, a lawyer in a grey suit speaks into a microphone to a large crowd sitting in an orderly half circle around him.
Firas Hamdan, 34, running for the first time in parliamentary elections scheduled for next month, is discussing his programme with residents. It's the first electoral meeting of its kind in the village, people say.
The main preoccupation in Kfeir, as it is in the rest of the country, is the economy. Lebanon’s two and a half year-long economic crisis probably ranks in the top three in the world since the 1850s, according to the World Bank, amid “deliberate inaction” by its entrenched sectarian leaders.
“Can you give us jobs? Can you make the economic situation better?” ask members of the audience, comprising elderly mustachioed men wearing the traditional white hat of the small Druze community as well as younger men and women.
Mr Hamdan promised that if around 10 opposition MPs like him are elected on May 15, they “can change the way politics are done in the country”. In 2018, only one opposition candidate was elected, from the capital, Beirut, to the 128-member Parliament.
The Druze vote in the South 3 electoral district, to which Kfeir belongs, is not considered to be strategic — with only about 10,000 votes out of 500,000 in total.
The district, which is the largest in the country, sends 11 MPs to Parliament, all Shiite Muslim except for one Druze, one Sunni Muslim and one Roman Catholic. Citizens traditionally vote for a candidate representing their sect, but this is not obligatory.
Despite being a minority, the Druze voters in South 3 might contribute on May 15 to bringing into Parliament the first opposition MPs from southern Lebanon, largely because of the unpopularity of Mr Hamdan’s opponent, Marwan Kheireddine.
The opposition is hoping that all voters will look beyond their sectarian affiliations this year as public sentiment has turned sharply against Lebanon's sectarian parties following the financial meltdown since 2019.
“It is not just about Shiites and Druze. It is about a new electoral behaviour that we'll see on the elections day,” said Fares Al Halabi, Mr Hamdan's campaign manager.
Mr Kheireddine, a 54-year old Druze banker, is running on an electoral list backed by Lebanon's strongest Shiite Muslim groups, Hezbollah and its ally Amal. This means that he is competing with Mr Hamdan for the one Druze seat in South 3.
Amal and Hezbollah struck a deal with rival Druze parties to include Mr Kheireddine, a political newcomer, on their list, sources say. The Amal leader, veteran Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, chose him personally.
Banker for banker
Mr Kheireddine’s uncle, banker and businessman Anwar El Khalil, has been the Druze MP for South 3 since 1992 but chose not to run this year. An independent MP also supported by Mr Berri, Mr El Khalil told The National his position towards his nephew's candidacy was “neutral".
But locals in Kfeir see Mr Berri’s attempt to replace Mr El Khalil with another banker as a symbol of the hypocrisy of mainstream political parties.
“If I give you money and you don’t return it to me, can you ask me to vote for you?” said Faysal Naoufal, a 75-year-old retired schoolteacher who used to vote for Mr El Khalil. “This system stole our rights, our money, and everything we had.”
Many candidates from traditional parties have promised to “return the stolen money”, yet most of them, including those from the parties that support Mr Kheireddine, have shared power in Parliament since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.
The World Bank wrote in June that the country’s economic meltdown was caused by its leaders’ mismanagement of its finances, coupled with their “defence of a bankrupt economic system, which benefited a few for so long”.
Mr Berri himself has called on banks to return “billions of dollars” transferred abroad while they were closed to the public for two weeks in October 2019 as the Lebanese pound slipped for the first time since 1997 and protests spread across the country.
These billions are widely assumed to be owned by the country’s elite. Meanwhile, capital controls imposed after the banks reopened have barred most Lebanese from access to their savings.
Mr Naoufal, the retired teacher in Kfeir, has been a card-carrying member since 1982 of Lebanon’s largest Druze political party, the Progressive Socialist Party, headed by the Joumblatt family.
“Walid Beyk supports Marwan Kheireddine”, he said, using a respectful term for Walid Joumblatt, who, at 72, recently handed over the direction of PSP to his son, Teymour.
“But he can’t impose that on me,” added Mr Naoufal, sitting in his living room after Mr Hamdan’s town hall meeting.
Mr Joumblatt told The National that Mr Kheireddine was a “compromise” candidate agreed upon between himself and Mr Berri, with a green light from his Druze rival, Talal Arslane, who is also Mr Kheireddine’s brother-in-law.
The PSP views the Druze vote in the south as less strategic than its heartland of Mount Lebanon, which is a two-hour drive away.
Mr Joumblatt denied media reports that Mr Kheireddine was also supported by Hezbollah, an Iran-backed party with a regional militia that is labelled a terrorist group by many Western countries.
“He is an independent candidate and part of a general environment in which there’s Berri, and maybe Hezbollah, I’m not sure. It’s up to him to explain this to you. But he’s not Hezbollah’s candidate,” he said.
Mr Kheireddine did not respond to several requests for comment sent through the communications manager of his bank, which was cofounded by his father. Hezbollah’s media office referred The National to MP and former minister Hussein Hajj Hassan, who said he had “no comment to make on the topic”.
The banker has been linked to controversy. Prominent economist and journalist Mohammad Zbib filed a complaint alleging that Mr Kheireddine’s bodyguards assaulted him in Beirut in February 2020 because of his criticism of the banking sector.
The trial, which was due to start on Thursday, was postponed until after the parliamentary election because of a judges' strike. NGO Legal Agenda tweeted that this would “deprive voters of the ability to see the trial of a candidate in South 3 accused of violence to silence his opponents".
Lebanese daily L'Orient Today reported in February that Mr Kheireddine was the initial investor behind a company that won the bid to operate the Beirut port's container terminal in 2004, with its ownership obscured through a complex corporate structure.
Mr Kheireddine did not respond to The National's request for comment at the time, and has never spoken publicly about it.
Ali Mourad, a candidate running for a Shiite seat in South 3 on the same opposition list as Mr Hamdan, described Mr Kheireddine’s candidacy as “not respectful” to voters.
“He is a symbol of the alliance between politics and finance in this country,” he said.
“It’s very strange that the Shiite duo decided to include a bank owner in a list at such a low point in their popularity,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a research fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.
“It seems that they have decided that money is more important than voter appeasement. This is also telling of how they define these elections,” he said, a reference to media reports that Mr Kheireddine was chosen for his ability to finance Amal’s election campaign.
The Amal source described the reports as “fake news” and said Mr Kheireddine was expected to fund only his own campaign.
Unlike anywhere else in the country, the opposition candidates in South 3 have the added advantage of presenting a unified front by all running on the same list.
Mr Mourad said one reason was the backing the opposition received from the Lebanese Communist Party, which is historically strong in southern Lebanon. An awareness of its own weakness in the face of Hezbollah and Amal might have also helped, he said.
“I personally would have stepped out of the race if we had been divided in two lists,” he said.
Mr Mourad also knows that Shiite challengers such as himself stand very little chance against Amal and Hezbollah under Lebanon's electoral system, leaving the candidates for the three minority seats in Sector 3 — Druze, Sunni Muslim and Christian — as the opposition's best hope.
Back in Kfeir, Mr Naoufal said he was hopeful of change.
“They are fighting hard against the opposition,” he said, referring to the established parties.
“Some people say that voting won’t change anything and that they’ll vote blank,” he said. “But that’s wrong. The most important thing is to vote.”