Lebanon’s newly elected parliament must urgently tackle the country’s financial crisis or the cash-strapped country will not get access to help from the European Union and may even face sanctions, MEP Christophe Grudler told The National on Tuesday.
“The most important thing to do now that the elections are over is to focus on the financial system,” said Mr Grudler. “I think that the EU must not be afraid of inflicting sanctions if we give money and it ends up in the pockets of the same people.
“We’re not here to help Lebanese oligarchs.”
Lebanon’s economy crashed in 2019 after years of mismanagement of the country’s finances by its ruling elite. Poverty rates soared from 42 per cent of the population in 2019 to 82 per cent last year, according to the UN.
Sunday’s parliamentary election, including the provision of ballot boxes and ink, was funded in large part by the European Union. At a little more than 40 per cent, turnout was lower than in 2018.
The IMF agreed in April to give Lebanon access to the equivalent of around $3 billion, but only if it implements a series of difficult reforms, including restructuring the financial sector.
Lebanese politicians have promised yet not delivered such reforms since at least 2018, when France hosted an international community to help Lebanon.
"If there's no agreement with the IMF, Lebanon is dead. The number of people emigrating will be massive. (Lebanon) will be an empty shell," said Mr Grudler.
Lebanon is already experiencing its third mass exodus, the American University of Beirut said in September.
Analysts fear the results of the country's latest parliamentary election, which yielded a further polarized parliament, may delay decision-making.
Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies lost their majority in parliament, while the Lebanese Forces, a Christian group fiercely opposed to Hezbollah, grabbed at least 10 more seats than in 2018.
But Mr Grudler, who was one of seven MEPs who took part in an EU election observation mission to Lebanon, said he was “optimistic” about the chances of lawmakers collaborating to implement reforms.
Mr Grudler, a French national, is a member of the centrist Renew group in the European Parliament and one of the rapporteurs of an EU parliament resolution that urged for sanctions on Lebanese officials in September 2021.
The resolution came three months after the EU adopted a legal framework to sanction Lebanese officials who undermine democracy or the rule of law. It has yet to implement it.
The election of around 13 independent Lebanese opposition figures on Sunday is a good signal to the international community, said Mr Grudler.
“It’s not a coincidence that some of the system’s most emblematic figures lost,” he told The National. “It’s the beginning of change.”
A handful of prominent MPs who had been in parliament since Lebanon’s first post-civil war election in 1992 lost their seats to newcomers. One of the most striking examples of such losses was the defeat of Druze leader Talal Arslane after 30 years in power, in the face of an opposition candidate, university professor Marc Daou.
Speaking about Lebanon’s traditional parties, Mr Grudler said they needed to reform. “We know there will be international investigations into the country’s finances and ill-gotten wealth,” he said.
The EU’s criminal justice agency froze in late March assets worth 120 million euros ($132 million) of Lebanese assets as part of an investigation into central bank governor Riad Salameh.
'Voter choice undermined by vote-buying'
The chief observer of the EU election observation mission to Lebanon, Gyorgy Holvenyi said on Tuesday it was “a great success that the election took place”.
Yet the mission wrote in a preliminary statement issued on the same day that “vote-buying and clientelist practices seriously undermined the voters’ choice”.
The EU’s statement noted that “election day was marked by localised tensions, weak performance of the polling staff, and often intrusive presence of candidate agents”.
Representatives of political parties are allowed in polling stations to observe the election but often outnumbered state representatives who were not often in control of the process, according to the EU.
“I was very struck by how vote buying was quite open. Each party said others did it, but not them,” said Mr Grudler. “Corruption won’t disappear from one day to the next. It will take time.”