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'There Is No Such Thing as Democracy': After the Election, It's Government as Usual in Lebanon

Voters mostly stayed home for the country's first elections in nearly a decade, and in the end, the same families remained in power.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri gives a thumbs-up to journalists after voting at a polling station in Beirut on May 6th, 2018.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri gives a thumbs-up to journalists after voting at a polling station in Beirut on May 6th, 2018.

BEIRUT, LEBANON — Perhaps, in the end, it was the expectation of normalcy—the recognition that things simply cannot change—that kept voters at home. Whether people intended to or not, their self-fulfilling prophecy is now complete: Lebanon is left with more of the same.

The election drew an expectedly modest voter turnout, which hovered near 50 percent; the lowest turnout numbers were recorded in Beirut, the capital.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri emerged during the May 6th elections as the front-runner to form the next government, with Iranian-backed Hezbollah leaders winning more than half the seats in Parliament. While the Civil Society, a movement of hopeful candidates that held firm the imagination of those wanting swift reforms against a stagnated government, took two seats in the 128-seat Parliament, overall there's little indication anything will change here.

The international community repeatedly stressed the importance of Lebanon holding timely elections to restore confidence in its institutions and maintain stability, but all the while little has been done to regenerate a nation left decimated after its civil war ended in 1990: Infrastructure buckles, roads are choked with cars, beaches are littered with trash, Internet is spotty, and electrical and water supplies are severed for no fewer than three hours daily.

Elections for Lebanon's Parliament have been postponed three times since the last vote in 2009, when the turnout reached 54 percent. Now Prime Minister Hariri—who last year was allegedly held captive by Saudi officials—has watched his Saudi-backed, pro-Western alliance lose ground to Hezbollah, signaling no real shift at all: Many of the same names remain in Parliament.

"There is no such thing as democracy," says Kamal Feghali, a local elections analyst. "A small country like Lebanon has no real value and whatever it does it is always influenced and affected by what goes on politically in neighboring countries."

Despite the relative calm and success in shielding the country from violence in neighboring Syria, Lebanon is still suffering from economic, environmental, and political hardships. In its most glaring insolvency, Lebanon still purchases electricity from its neighbor, Syria, as a seven-year civil war struggles on there.

A government based on sectarian allotment—that is, one where positions within the bureaucratic structure are appointed on religious affiliation—is both archaic and anarchic.

"I don't believe that sectarianism will continue far into the future because people are changing," he says. "This new generation grew up on the thought that the resistance is a sect, but this won't last long."

Aspirations toward a liberal democracy in Lebanon are often quashed even as officials plead with the European Union for funds to support its ailing electrical infrastructure and its hosting of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

"I hope the French come back," a man in the Achrafieh neighborhood in Beirut, who refused to give his name, tells me, referring to the French colonization of what is today Lebanon.

Few of the first-time voters between the ages of 21 and 29 believed their votes meant much, though, according to a recent survey by Statistics Lebanon, 76 percent of this group still said they planned on voting. A 2017 change to the voting law—which switched the system from a plurality to a proportionality—is seen as another smokescreen in an elections process that resulted in little tangible change other than the number of electoral districts, which shrunk from 26 to 15.

"A lot of people who were excited to vote, sometimes for the first time, would have raised the participation bar," says Joseph Bahout, a visiting scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Lands of Metamorphosis is a month-long column chronicling the social, cultural, and political paroxysms of the Middle East today.