As Lebanon goes to polls on Sunday, all eyes are on a host of young candidates and new political groups, which have emerged in recent years to challenge the country's established political elite.
The small Mediterranean country is facing one of the world’s worst economic crises, which has pushed more than two-thirds of its seven million population below the poverty line.
In October 2019, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in unprecedented protests calling for change and for an end to corruption. Those demonstrations attracted people from all walks of life and sectarian divide.
The explosion at the Beirut port in 2020 in which more than 200 people were killed was a defining moment for an already frustrated civil society. The blast was the result of a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate which was stored there and to many people the incident represented everything that had gone wrong in the country since the end of its 15-year civil war in 1990.
While these events have contributed to drastic changes in Lebanon’s political landscape, experts say Sunday’s poll is unlikely to bring significant change to the country. But emerging and independent candidates could start to chip away the establishment's power.
A constellation of emerging and independent lists
This year, an unprecedented number of independent and young emerging candidates are vying for the 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament from across the country, and many of them are linked to the 2019 uprising.
The interior ministry has registered 103 lists including 718 candidates - 20 percent more than in the last election in 2018. Most districts saw the registration of an additional one to three electoral lists compared with the last election.
“The landscape of opposition groups has grown a lot since the uprising,” Nadim El Kak of the Beirut-based think tank The Policy Initiative (TPI) told TRT World. But critics say the opposition has failed to capitalise on popular discontent and has been unable to form a united front.
“Some groups consider traditional opposition parties as their allies, other groups consider them part of the regime,” El Kak explains. “In some districts there have been alliances between those different groups, but in other districts these groups have been running against one another.”
In addition, some opposition candidates have accused supporters of traditional parties of harassment and attacks on their election campaigns.
According to Ibrahim Jouhari, a political analyst at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute, independent and emerging candidates are projected to get between seven and twenty seats in Lebanon’s next Parliament. But projections, he says, are hard to make after former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s retirement from politics left voters loyal to his Future Movement – the country’s largest Sunni bloc in parliament – stranded.
While some former Future Movement candidates are running as independents, there are concerns that many Sunnis won’t cast their votes.
Lebanon’s electoral system works on a confessional basis, which means main religious communities have proportional representation in the parliament.
“In the best case scenario [for emerging groups] they will form a hardcore of reformers in Parliament that will be putting pressure on the other parties,” Jouhari says.
“Keeping an eye on the corruption, playing the role of kingmaker, or at least equaliser by removing part of the extremist powers in Parliament. So they will play a big role. Will it be earth shattering change? No, but it could be the start of an earth shattering change.”
Different visions for ‘change’
While some groups align along pragmatic lines, El Kak explains, others have a programme that is based on principles. One of the issues, he explains, is how different opposition groups interpret the current political system.
“Is it a problem that is systemic, about completely changing the whole political system, or is it just about having new faces, non-corrupt faces?” says El Kak.
Another issue of contention is their stance on the financial sector, which some groups want to hold accountable to cover most of Lebanon’s exorbitant financial losses – amounting to an estimated $68 billion to $69 billion. Other candidates and parties on the right side of the political spectrum favour the sale of state assets, privatisations and the seizure of land.
The Lebanese pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value since 2019, triggering high inflation and shortages of fuel, medicine, food and other commodities.
In early April, the country reached a staff-level agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to release around $3 billion of financial assistance in return for a series of key structural reforms – which the incoming government will be tasked with implementing.
Nearly three times as many Lebanese voters living abroad registered to vote in more than 50 countries last weekend - 225,000 compared to nearly 83,000 in 2018. The campaign to register new voters was largely led by groups and individuals associated with the opposition. But voters in the diaspora remain a minority, and their allegiances, previous research has shown, have previously lied largely with traditional parties.
The turnout was 63 percent, according to Lebanon’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“One of the issues with emerging parties or emerging groups is that they are still thinking about politics as interest groups, [converging on issues like] the environment or corruption,” Jouhari says, “they haven't yet evolved into political parties that can bring these under a big umbrella and win elections.”
“Elections are not the only vehicle for change,” El Kak says. “Victories of the opposition would be a sign to the establishment that there are new players in the Lebanese political arena, that the opposition now has legitimate representation and support, which has not been the case in the past.”