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“Last hope”: Lebanese abroad have their say in the polls | Elections News


Beirut, Lebanon – Before mass protests against the Lebanese ruling elite swept over the country in October 2019, Yasmin Saad never would have thought that she would be particularly invested in the politics of her home country.

But two years later, watching from France a number of aggravating crises hitting millions of Lebanese, the 22-year-old marketing student decided to register to vote in next year’s legislative elections.

“I think this is a last chance – or a last hope,” Saad told Al Jazeera from Marseille. “What really, really made me start voting were those days when everyone was protesting in the streets – and we had our own demonstrations and rallies in France.”

She is not alone. The Lebanese Foreign Ministry said 244,442 Lebanese living abroad met Saturday’s deadline and registered to vote in the March 27 elections, more than double the number of expatriates who registered for the elections. previous polls in 2018.

Millions of Lebanese have left the country over the past decades, taking their skills and talents abroad to seek better opportunities in the face of instability, entrenched corruption and financial mismanagement. Although there are no clear numbers, many estimates claim that more people live abroad than inside the small country itself, which is home to some 6.5 million people, including Lebanese and refugees.

Lebanese abroad were allowed to vote for the first time in 2018 under a new electoral law that also stipulated that six new seats would be added to parliament in the 2022 elections to represent the diaspora. However, independent political parties and many expats disagreed with the addition, arguing it was a way to isolate the diaspora from local constituencies. Last month, MPs rejected the addition of the six seats, meaning expats will vote in May for the existing 128 seats.

In October 2019, mass protests spread across Lebanon against a ruling elite of sectarian parties and private sector cronies who had gained a foothold in the country for decades. Lebanese in dozens of cities around the world have staged similar protests in solidarity with the youth-led protests in their country, adding their voice to calls for an overhaul of Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system that has resulted in a widespread nepotism.

Since then, the crisis has worsened further, with Lebanon’s local currency losing about 90% of its value against the US dollar. About three quarters of the population live in poverty, relying heavily on charity and aid in the absence of viable social programs.

Public anger against the ruling elite reached new heights in August 2020, when a massive explosion in the port of Beirut razed several areas of the capital, killing more than 200 people and injuring thousands. Lebanese abroad have organized numerous charitable campaigns to support local aid groups to help families in difficulty obtain medicine, heating and rent.

Saad said the past two years have pushed her and her friends to support independent candidates who have pledged to challenge the status quo.

“We were all united for once, just to change and want a better future,” Saad said. “It made me realize that maybe these elections were going to be different.”

And independent political forces have taken note.

Mark Daou is a candidate in the mountainous region of Chouf-Aley on behalf of Taqaddom, a party he co-founded which he describes as “progressive” and “social-democratic”.

He said the diaspora turnout was a promising development and reflected greater enthusiasm among Lebanese expatriates to participate in the polls.

“We were able to contact several Lebanese – but in fact, they contacted us, which is even better,” Daou told Al Jazeera by phone as he traveled to France on Friday after finishing a meeting with living Lebanese. in Germany. “They would ask us, ‘Do you want to do this? »Do we have to register [to vote]? ‘”

Power sharing system

Edy Semaan left Lebanon for the United States in 2017 to pursue his Masters and is currently working as a Communication Specialist in Washington, DC. He did not vote in the last Lebanese election four years ago, but this time he plans to take time off work and return home early to support independent party campaigns ahead of the election.

“I am pro-thawra [revolution]Semaan told Al Jazeera with pride.

Still, he admitted he did not expect a major parliamentary overhaul, highlighting the financial firepower and patronage network of ruling parties in dozens of countries – Lebanon’s traditional political powers have invested for decades. in maintaining the support of their followers in the diaspora, many of whom have become financial patrons.

“I don’t think the diaspora will make a huge difference this election season, but I think they will help bring some new faces to parliament,” Semaan said, saying ending the “deep-rooted corruption” in Lebanon will take years.

Ibrahim Halawi, foreign relations secretary of Citizens in a State, an independent party which announced its participation in the vote last week, asserted that “there is no ‘diaspora’.

“It completely erases the long-term existence of a sectarian organization within the diaspora,” he told Al Jazeera.

For his part, Daou said he hoped independent political parties and opposition groups could win “10 to 20 percent” of parliamentary seats.

On paper, that would look like an insignificant fraction. But in reality, it could represent a significant breakthrough as Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, which allocates seats to different sects in different districts, has been a major obstacle for independent candidates.

As a result, building an electoral base for a constituency isn’t just about bringing in the most qualified and suitable candidate – it’s also about finding like-minded people from certain sects in their respective constituencies. .

Lebanon’s ruling elite – ranging from the Iranian-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah to the Saudi-backed Christian party, the Lebanese Forces – have long benefited from this unique power-sharing system, succeeding in maintaining political strongholds in the country. parts of the country.

Yet protest movements and political parties have continually tried to win over professional unions, unions and student movements. Last summer, independent political groups swept elections for the engineers’ union, one of the largest in the country.

“Battle for the distribution of losses”

Legislative elections come at a crucial time for cash-strapped Lebanon.

The current government led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati faces a handful of obstacles to get the country back on track. He prioritized resuming talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, which would unlock billions of dollars in loans and economic aid.

As the central bank and the country’s commercial banks put pressure on the government to make sure they are not too burdensome by the stimulus package, Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights man and extreme poverty, recently criticized them for not recognizing their role in the crisis because of their bad practices and the mismanagement of depositors’ savings.

With that in mind, Halawi, of Citizens in a State, said legislative elections can help efforts to push back the influence of the country’s broken financial system and ensure that the millions of Lebanese already clubbed do not also carry a financial burden. additional in the recovery phase.

“It is a battle for the distribution of losses,” he said.

“This is the time, historically speaking, when society should claim universal health and education as a right. This is when the banks and crooked elites are weakest. We have to hit them hard to get what we want.