Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Lebanon explodes, first vote after financial collapse

Lebanon voted on Sunday in the first election since its country’s economic collapse, a test of whether Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies can maintain their parliamentary majority amid rising poverty and anger among ruling parties.

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After months of uncertainty about whether the election will go ahead, voting will begin at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) in 15 electoral districts. Citizens over the age of 21 vote in their native towns and villages, sometimes far from home.

The country has been rocked by an economic downturn that the World Bank has blamed on the ruling class and the devastating Beirut port explosion of 2020. Analysts say the public outcry on both issues could drive some reform-minded candidates to parliament.

But hopes for a major setback are dim in Lebanon’s sectarian system, which divides parliament seats into 11 religious groups and skews in favor of established parties.

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In the last vote in 2018, the heavily armed Shia movement Hezbollah and its allies – including President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Christian party – won 71 of the 128 seats in parliament.

Those results pulled Lebanon deeper into the orbit of Shia Muslim-led Iran, thereby stifling the influence of Sunni Muslim-led Saudi Arabia.

Hezbollah has said it expects some changes from the make-up of the current parliament, although its opponents – including Saudi-aligned Lebanese forces, another Christian group – say they are expecting seats from the FPM.

Adding a note of uncertainty, the boycott by Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri has left a void that both Hezbollah allies and opponents seek to fill.

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As the vote drew closer, the watchdog warned that candidates would buy votes through food packages and fuel vouchers issued to families suffering from the financial collapse.

The next parliament is due to vote on major reforms needed by the International Monetary Fund to unlock financial aid to ease the crisis and elect a new president to replace Aun, whose term ends on 31 October.

Whatever the outcome on Sunday, analysts say Lebanon could face a period of paralysis that would halt economic recovery as factions barter on departments in a new power-sharing cabinet – a process that could take months. Huh.

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