Lebanon elections: UN chief Antonio Guterres urges 'free, transparent' process

Report to UN Security Council calls for quick formation of a government amid national crises

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the Lebanese people 'are struggling daily to meet basic essential needs'. Reuters

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for “free, fair, transparent and inclusive” parliamentary elections in Lebanon.

Mr Guterres said he hoped for the quick formation of a government to prioritise reforms amid multiple crises after the elections on May 15.

In a report to the UN Security Council, circulated on Wednesday, he said political polarisation had deepened and the Lebanese people were "struggling daily to meet basic essential needs".

He said frequent protests across the country were being sparked by “public frustration with the political situation and the economic and financial crisis”.

The May 15 elections for parliament are the first since Lebanon’s economic crisis began in late 2019. The government’s factions have done little to address the collapse, leaving Lebanese to fend for themselves as they plunge into poverty, without electricity, medicine, rubbish collections or any other semblance of normal life. The Lebanese diaspora registered to vote abroad will go to the polls on Friday.

The elections are also the first since the catastrophic explosion at Beirut port on August 4, 2020, that killed more than 215 people and wrecked large parts of the city. The destruction sparked widespread outrage at the traditional parties’ endemic corruption and mismanagement.

Mr Guterres, who visited Lebanon in December, said no one had yet been held accountable for the explosion and the Lebanese people were demanding “truth and justice”.

He again called for “a swift, impartial, thorough and transparent investigation” and said “the independence of the judiciary must be respected”.

A total of 103 lists with 1,044 candidates are vying for the 128-seat legislature, which is divided equally between Christians and Muslims.

Self-declared opposition groups remain divided along ideological lines on virtually every issue, including over how to revive the economy, and as a result there are an average of at least three different opposition lists in each of the 15 electoral districts, a 20 per cent increase from the 2018 elections.

Mr Guterres said proposals submitted in the past two years for a women’s quota were still pending in parliament. He urged the new government be formed quickly “with full participation of women and young people”.

It came as a Lebanese probe into alleged embezzlement and money laundering by the governor of Lebanon's central bank and his brother was – in a fresh development that could advance the investigation – set to access new account information on the brother on Thursday.

Bank chief Riad Salameh is facing probes in Lebanon and at least five European nations into the alleged embezzlement of at least $330 million in public funds by him and his younger brother Raja. Both have denied the accusations. On Thursday, the central bank’s special investigations commission agreed to hand over account information on Raja Salameh to Lebanon’s top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, Riad Salameh confirmed to Reuters.

Riad Salameh would normally head the commission but said he had stepped back “so there is no conflict of interest”.

Mr Oueidat had previously sent letters to Lebanese banks asking them to provide the Lebanese judiciary with account information on Raja Salameh. They had refused, citing banking secrecy laws, and instead provided information to the Central Bank’s commission.

In another development, a French judge investigating the same accusations against the two brothers made an unprecedented visit to Beirut. Judges in Europe are also seeking such information as it may provide answers as to where the proceeds of allegedly ill-gotten gains ended up.

French judge Aude Buresi met Mr Oueidat on Thursday at a Beirut courthouse, three judicial sources told Reuters, the first such visit by a European judge.

Her visit was aimed in part at securing account information relating to the Salameh brothers and other persons of interest in the probe, two people familiar with the matter said. The handover of complete information would mark significant progress in the investigation after months of delay.

Updated: May 12, 2022, 5:12 AM