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After the collapse of Lebanon, can an election fix the country?

BEIRUT, Lebanon — On stage, Lebanese politicians spoke about defending national sovereignty, fighting corruption and fixing the state. Their leader said he would fight to disarm Hezbollah, the political party that is also Lebanon’s strongest military force.

But those worries were far from the mind of Mohammed Siblini, 57, who, like many Lebanese, had seen his life crumble over the past two years as the country crumbled.

The plummeting national currency meant his monthly salary from a car rental company fell to $115 from $2,000, he said. The state’s inability to provide electricity meant that most of its revenue went to a generator to keep its lights on. What was left did not cover the small pleasures that were, until recently, an integral part of life.

“I want meat!” Mr. Siblini yelled at politicians. “Give us a kilo of meat!”

On Sunday, Lebanon votes for a new parliament for the first time in four years. It’s hard to overstate how much worse life got for the average citizen during this period, and how little the country’s political elite did to cushion the blow.

Voting is the first opportunity for the public to formally respond to the performance of its leaders. At stake, then, is not just who wins which seats, but the broader question of whether the Lebanese political system is capable of resolving its many dysfunctions.

Few analysts think so, at least in the short term.

The country’s complex social composition, with 18 officially recognized religious sects and a history of civil strife, drives many voters to elect their co-religionists, even if they are corrupt.

And in a country where citizens seek a party leader to cut bureaucracy or secure government jobs for their children, corruption actually helps established political parties serve their constituents.

But the collapse has put a strain on this old system.

The crisis began in late 2019, when protests against the political elite spilled onto the streets of the capital, Beirut, and other cities.

This heightened pressure on banks, which had engaged in creative accounting with the central bank to prop up the currency and generate unsustainable returns for depositors.

Critics called it a Ponzi scheme, and it suddenly failed. The value of the Lebanese pound began a decline that would erase 95% of its value, and commercial banks imposed limits on withdrawals, refusing to give people their money because the banks had effectively lost it.

The financial turmoil tore the economy apart. Prices soared, businesses failed, unemployment soared, and doctors, nurses and other professionals fled the country for better wages abroad.

The state, which had never been able to supply electricity 24 hours a day, was so short of cash that it hardly provided any more, even to power traffic lights.

Worse still, a huge explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020, also caused by gross mismanagement, killed over 200 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Despite losses that the government says amount to $72 billion, none of the banks have gone out of business, the head of the central bank remains in office, and none of the politicians who supported the policies that led to the collapse was not held responsible. Some of them are running in Sunday’s election – and are likely to win.

Many of the candidates are familiar faces who would struggle to portray themselves as agents of change.

Among them, Nabih Berri, the 84-year-old Speaker of Parliament, who held this post, without interruption, for almost three decades; Ali Hassan Khalil, former finance minister who obstructed the investigation into the cause of the Beirut explosion; and Gebran Bassil, the president’s son-in-law, whom the United States accuses of corruption and imposed sanctions last year. Mr. Bassil denies the charge.

Hezbollah, which holds a substantial bloc in parliament and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries, is fielding a series of candidates. Others are warlords from the Lebanese civil war, which ended in 1990, or, in some cases, their sons.

Many voters are simply fed up and don’t believe their votes will make a difference.

“A candidate comes now and says ‘I’m going to do this and that’, and I tell them, ‘Many came before you and couldn’t change anything’,” said Claudette Mhanna, a seamstress.

She said she would like to vote for a new character from the 2019 protests, but due to how the election is going, she has to vote for lists that include candidates she hates.

“We are suffocating,” she says. “If I start thinking about going to vote, I can’t think of who I would vote for.”

Many of those who show up have ties to the financial system, which UN poverty expert Olivier De Schutter shares responsibility for Lebanon’s ‘man-made crisis’ that led to rights abuses of man.

“Lifetime savings have been wiped out by a reckless banking sector lured by monetary policy favorable to their interests,” he wrote in a report released last week. “An entire generation has been condemned to misery.”

On Friday, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reported that a son of Lebanon’s central bank governor transferred more than $6.5 million out of the country at a time when most depositors were private. of their savings.

These transactions were carried out by AM Bank, whose chairman, Marwan Kheireddine, bought a Manhattan penthouse for $9.9 million from actress Jennifer Lawrence in August 2020, as the Lebanese economy was collapsing.

Mr Kheireddine said the purchase was for a business he ran, not for him personally.

Now he is a candidate for Parliament and he told The New York Times in an interview that he wanted to use his experience to help fix the economy.

“I have experience in finance,” he says. “I’m not going to make any promises, but I’ll do my best to work hard to get depositors’ money back.”

For many Lebanese, loyalty to the party remains strong.

“There is no list that deserves my vote more than Hezbollah,” said Ahmad Zaiter, 22, a student at Baalbek University in eastern Lebanon.

He said Hezbollah’s weapons were needed to defend the country and that the party helped its supporters through the crisis by supplying cheap medicine from Syria and Iran.

“If there is a party other than Hezbollah that offers arms to the government to strengthen it so that we can defend ourselves or offer services, then where is it?” he said.

Many newbies also run, presenting themselves as cleaner and closer to people. Most projections have them winning only a limited number of seats in the 128-member parliament, and analysts expect them to struggle without the infrastructure of a political party.

“I will be the voice of the people in parliament, but I cannot promise that I will fix the electricity or the infrastructure,” said Asma-Maria Andraos, candidate in Beirut. “I can’t say that I will stop the corruption, which is deeply rooted in our system.”

Many Lebanese who can afford it have already left the country, and many more are looking for ways to get by. A recent survey by the Arab Barometer research group found that 48% of Lebanese citizens were seeking to emigrate. For people aged 18 to 29, the percentage rose to 63%, according to the poll.

Fares Zouein, owner of a sandwich shop in Beirut, said he intended to vote for his local political leader, whom he declined to name because the man is using his position to help the neighborhood.

“That’s our problem in Lebanon: if you don’t have anyone to help you, you’re stuck,” said Zouein, 50.

He too believed little that the election would make life better.

“That’s why everyone in Lebanon has three goals in life: get a second passport, open a bank account abroad and send their children to school abroad,” he said. .

nytimes Gt

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