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Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections: Referendum or bust

13 May 2022

Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections: Referendum or bust

13 May 2022

Lebanon is not a failed State yet, but it is a failing State, with a government failing its population.”

– Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections, on May 15, will be the Lebanese citizens’ first electoral referendum following the country’s recent economic collapse. Significant also is the fact that this will be the first election held since the October 2019 popular uprising, which united the country irrespective of party or sectarian lines. The decentralizing mobilization had initially sparked widespread optimism that future Lebanese governments could at long last transcend from the current sectarian order, a system which only one-in-ten Lebanese citizens wish to maintain.[1]  Nevertheless, the counter-revolutionary forces at work, particularly those who refused to step down from office, betted on the movement’s momentum to fizzle out, all the while Lebanon’s problems descended from bad to worse. With one rolling crisis after another, from economic collapse to a global pandemic, the 2020 Beirut Port blast, a lack of petrol, and limited access to basic medicine and healthcare, the chaos culminated in one of the most pressing issues facing Lebanon – an energy crisis that has resulted in daily electricity cuts, at times lasting more than 24 hours, driving the Lebanese people to shift their priorities from revolution to survival.

Today, Lebanon teeters on the precipice of bankruptcy – a self-inflicted wound caused by decades of corruption, theft, and bribery orchestrated by Lebanon’s top political elites – as the country’s GDP contracted by nearly 58% between 2019 to 2021.[2]  The findings of a recent Arab Barometer poll reflect how such a drastic financial decline has impacted Lebanese public opinion regarding their country’s governance, with only four percent expressing satisfaction with the government’s overall performance compared to 68% who remain completely dissatisfied.[3]

With such widespread discontent with the elected status quo, it seems almost implausible that out of the 128 members that make up Lebanon’s National Assembly, 87 are running for re-election this May.[4] Moreover, at a time when much of the Lebanese population is demanding political change, many of the candidates running for re-election have previously held office for decades.  Of the current incumbents running for re-election, nine have served in every parliament since at least 1992,[5] most notably Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, who at the age of 84 has held office for over three decades. Gripping onto power has ensured self-preservation and the avoidance of culpability for the endless hardships that have compounded Lebanon for decades, such as the current debt crisis, monopoly over Lebanon’s electricity sector, lack of waste management strategy, and deficiency of access to basic healthcare for Lebanon’s poorest citizens – just to name a few. So, the question remains, why do the Lebanese people keep re-electing negligent leadership?

The concept of clientelism plays a defining role in Lebanese politics. When a state is unable, or in the case of Lebanon, often unwilling to look after the basic needs of its citizens, networks of clientelism evolve as a means of ‘vote-buying’ in exchange for access to education, healthcare, legal services, and job opportunities. While it has become common practice to make cash payments in exchange for a pledged vote on election day, even broader support can enable entities to secure government contracts and construction bids as well as gain access to public funds. In contrast, voter intimidation – a coercive approach to suppress one’s vote – is unfortunately all too common in Lebanon during election season. While most constituents head to the ballot box to vote for candidates who have campaigned on issues that closely align with their own national political vision, more often than not, electors vote instead for “existing sectarian parties out of fear of other groups” and thus make “their electoral decision out of the perceived need to protect their own community based on the myth of being threatened as a confessional group – in terms of both physical and resource-based security – by other groups.”[6] While such nefarious relationships arising from corrupt political economy and voter intimidation tend to peak during election season,[7] instilling fear or creating dependency allow those who have the ability to sway influence to ultimately remain in power.

Certainly, many voters have succumbed to the idea that such patronage networks are simply a matter of give and take, and that entering into such an informal agreement negates their elected leadership of any responsibility to implement reforms – so long as their needs are met. Such an arrangement also benefits the sectarian leadership as any change in the status quo would diminish their grip on power. However, as Lebanon continues its downward spiral, those who have not fallen prey to such a vicious cycle and have remained clear-eyed about the political paralysis gripping their country are ultimately refusing to vote in this election for any candidate of the long-entrenched political class.[8]  Such a scenario only further bolsters the urgent need for a united front for the opposition. At a campaign rally this past March, six opposition groups joined forces under the slogan ‘Our unity is the beginning of change’. Projecting such a strong alliance is crucial to avoid a ‘scattering’ of votes across competing candidates, which could weaken the movement’s momentum and potential political power.[9]

The issues

Every election brings its own unique core issues that drive voters to the polls during a particular season. And while decades of internal corruption and political mismanagement have driven Lebanon to the financial abyss it finds itself in today, years of neglect and lack of proper governance created secondary adverse issues that continue to shackle Lebanon’s resiliency in 2022.

A recent independent study conducted by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung – a German political foundation whose mission is to shape policies in emerging countries by fostering democracy and promoting human rights – found that ending political corruption, repatriating illegally transferred funds, and reshuffling existing political elites were the most pressing issues on the minds of the Lebanese people today.[10]

When factored together, such fundamental concerns have undoubtedly shaped Lebanon’s post-civil war economic decline. According to the World Bank, Lebanon’s “deliberate depression” ranks “in the top 10, possibly top three, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century.”[11]

These dire circumstances have forced 80% of Lebanon’s population to live beneath the poverty line,[12] created triple digit inflation rates, and resulted in a 95% depreciation of the Lebanese pound since 2019, causing savings and retirement accounts to plunge in the blink of an eye. Local banks began imposing strict US dollar withdrawal limits leaving their customers to helplessly stand by as their life savings plummeted. On par with such devastation, it is estimated that since the 2019 uprisings, a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of educated and skilled professionals have fled Lebanon,[13] migrating abroad in search of better opportunities – a concept known as ‘brain-drain’. With the mass departure of healthcare professionals, educators and engineers, the impact of such an exit on society will have repercussions for decades to come. As the World Bank states, such “permanent damage to human capital would be very hard to recover.”[14]  Nonetheless, throughout such economic turmoil, personal remittances of the Lebanese diaspora over the years have remained a critical pillar of the Lebanese economy. In 2020, remittance inflows accounted for 21% of Lebanon’s GDP.[15]  Besides functioning as a primary source of funding for Lebanon’s baking sector, personal remittances have also served as a social safety net and main source of income for many households – one explanation as to why some in Lebanon have been able to weather the economic storm. For families who receive funds from abroad, remittances on average account for 40% of the total household income,[16] providing access to education and healthcare that would have otherwise not been affordable.

A separate, yet disturbing, trickle-down effect of Lebanon’s economic crisis has been the recent uptick in ISIS activity and recruitment in Lebanon. ISIS has been capitalizing on the economic desperation of Lebanese citizens, enticing desperate young men with lucrative salaries ranging from $2000 to $5000 a month[17] if they are willing to join the Islamic State.[18] ISIS has been strategically targeting Lebanon’s poorest regions, including the northern Sunni strongholds of Tripoli, Akkar, and Arsal, while also recruiting Palestinian refugees, most of whom live in overcrowded camps in nearly uninhabitable conditions. Lebanon hosts roughly half a million Palestinian refugees, who suffer from high unemployment due to stringent laws that block such stateless individuals from working in as many as 39 professions,[19] limiting their employment primarily to jobs in construction and administrative roles.[20] For ISIS, such hopelessness in Lebanon equates to a ripe picking ground for new recruits. Earlier this year reports surfaced that approximately 50 young men from Tripoli had abruptly vanished, only later to resurface in Iraq and Syria, with security forces in Lebanon believing they had in fact joined the ranks of ISIS.  Khaldoun al-Sharif, a local Tripoli politician, stated that while some of the young men chose to embrace extremist ideology and leave, others have faced “tough economic circumstances, as the poverty rate in Tripoli and the north was already high before the economic collapse, and has significantly worsened since then.”[21]

This past February, Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) thwarted a planned attack by the Islamic State, which had intended to strike three Shiite religious targets with the use of suicide bombers in Hezbollah’s Beirut-controlled districts. Such destabilizing activity in densely populated areas of the capital could have caused massive damages and loss of life. According to Lebanon’s Interior Minister, Bassam Mawlawi, ISIS had recruited young Palestinian men in Lebanon to carry out the attack using “explosive belts and other munitions.”[22] While ISF undercover agents were able to infiltrate the IS network in Lebanon, thwarting the planned attack, there is no doubt that the country’s financial crisis will continue to undermine Lebanon’s stability.  As citizens and refugees struggle with unemployment, financial losses, and a decline in the standard of living, such conditions will continue to push young men to the brink opting to enlist with the IS, not due to ideological motivations, but rather in desperation as a means to provide for their families.

Another major issue that has yet to be legally addressed, and one that is at the forefront of many voters’ minds this season, is the political accountability surrounding the Beirut Port blast of August 2020. The blast, which left over 200 dead and 7000 wounded, damaged 77,000 apartments, and displaced nearly 300,000 people, is considered the largest non-nuclear disaster in Lebanon’s history. Such a seismic explosion was the result of nearly 2,750 tonnes of improperly stored ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical whose presence and final intended destination out of the Port of Beirut still leave behind more questions than answers. Current evidence suggests that numerous Lebanese officials were, “at a minimum, criminally negligent under Lebanese law in their handling of the cargo, creating an unreasonable risk to life,”[23] according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Based on evidence that has been made publicly available, all signs overwhelmingly point to Lebanon’s political elite “who failed to accurately communicate the dangers posed by the ammonium nitrate, knowingly stored the material in unsafe conditions, and failed to protect the public,” according to Lama Fakih, Crisis and Conflict Director for HRW.

In the aftermath of the blast, lack of government assistance programs, particularly for those who suffered temporary or permanent disabilities, along with the unavailability of medication for the victims, has forced many to turn to NGO’s for help. With the investigation into the explosion currently on hold due to bureaucratic roadblocks,[24] the Lebanese people continue to firmly put the blame of the blast on the country’s corrupt and dysfunctional political establishment. Following Lebanon’s worst catastrophe, of its own making, those in power have remained unwilling to provide judicial accountability to protect those who were physically, mentally, and financially impacted.

Finally, the Russian military invasion in Ukraine has prompted food security concerns in Lebanon, as the country now has only approximately one month’s supply of wheat, as additional storage facilities are yet to be constructed. In 2020, Lebanon was importing 80% of its wheat from Ukraine;[25] however, as the war in Europe continues to rage on with no end in sight, Lebanon remains extremely vulnerable to bread shortages. Equally concerning is that, as Lebanon experiences record-high inflation, everyday food staples and medicines are becoming unaffordable for most citizens. The situation has been exacerbated by the government’s removal of subsidies on basic goods, along with merchants who manipulate prices for their own financial gains.  Moreover, current food inflation in Lebanon – a 600% increase in food costs since 2019 – has resulted in an estimated 200,000 children under the age of 5 being diagnosed with a form of malnutrition, while 90% of children “do not meet the standards for minimum meal frequency, dietary diversity or acceptable diet during the crucial period for growth and development up to age two,” according to recent UNICEF reports.[26]

Cautious optimism

Amidst such despair, glimmers of cautious optimism remain. When asked which party electors intend on voting for this May, recent polling[27] found that 26% of respondents plan to vote for ‘independent’ candidates. Of significance is that 14.7% of the respondents said they planned to vote for Hezbollah candidates, while 12.3% expressed their intention to vote for the October 17 uprising and change movements.

When respondents were asked which candidate in Lebanon’s current political sphere for them represented the ‘ideal political figure’, 60% said no such candidate existed (up 20% from 2019 when polled with the same question). Furthermore, nearly 45% said they would not vote for the same party they had voted for during the last elections in 2018.

Such figures reflect the despair created by the ongoing socio-economic landscape in Lebanon, and more importantly the heightened resentment and frustration of the Lebanese population towards the current elected officials.  Such widespread anguish has become the catalyst for the next generation of Lebanese citizens, who have opted to run as alternative candidates this term, to reclaim their country’s dignity while creating a more prosperous and inclusive future that represents all of Lebanon, not just the political and economic power brokers who have maintained a strong-arm over Lebanon for far too long. Alternative candidates are considered non-sectarian, with no association to the current political establishment, no foreign agenda, and no connection to external forces who may influence them.[28]  Out of the 718 candidates who have made it onto the electoral lists for the upcoming elections, 212 have been deemed ‘alternative’, accounting for nearly 30% of the total number of candidates.[29]

One such candidate taking social media by storm is the 25-year-old law school graduate and member of the Beirut Bar Association, Verena El Amil.  Of the 118 female candidates running in the elections, Verena is one of the many whose political aspirations were manifested following the October 2019 popular uprising movements. Recognizing that the next generation is key to implementing meaningful national reforms, one of Verena’s main objectives is to empower Lebanon’s youth to be more assertive in politics, telling L’Orient: “When I announced my candidacy, a lot of young people who had sworn to abstain from voting told me that they now feel concerned and are asking me how they can help.”[30]  And in a recent radio interview, Verena stated: “People look at us and say it’s not our time because we’re so young. Yet our political choices are clear. We know what we want. We know why we’re here. So we won’t allow anyone to sideline us.’[31]

While candidates like Verena will certainly have a number of forces working against them – particularly the political weight and influence of the established elite combined with the frustration of those who have given up on their government altogether and have no plans to vote this season – the momentum to elect alternative politicians will continue to multiply as the unbearable reality in Lebanon prevails.

Power of the diaspora

Since Lebanon’s last election in 2018, the number of Lebanese expats who have registered to vote from abroad has nearly tripled, rising from 83,000 in 2018 to 225,114 in 2022.[32] Such an increase can be attributed to several factors. First, recent amendments to Electoral Law No. 44 of 2017/Article 122[33] now allow diaspora voters to vote for all 128 seats in parliament, based on their electoral districts.[34] Prior to the amendments, the law permitted expats to vote on a total of six seats only – the intention was to allow the diaspora community to elect MPs that would exclusively represent them. Additionally, there has been a massive mobilization of social media campaigns targeting Lebanese expats, informing them on the steps and requirements needed in order to vote from abroad. While such activity is usually undertaken by governments, the recent voter drive has instead been promoted by Lebanese expats around the globe, who sympathize with the frustrations back home and have marshaled their combined efforts as a means to upend the corrupt status quo in Lebanon – even if only from afar. Ultimately, a vote is a vote and carries the same weight whether it is tallied from Brazil, Australia, or Beirut. The key to such a movement is to carry on the momentum for future elections. The United Nations estimates there are approximately 10 million Lebanese living abroad,[35] which constitutes a massive pool of untapped voters. Harnessing such votes would certainly have the potential to impact future elections for years to come. The Lebanese diaspora community must continue to remain engaged and educate their fellow friends and family abroad on the process of voting overseas, while also educating the Lebanese youth that elections have consequences and that every single vote counts – no matter where it comes from.

An alternative Lebanon: Transition from resilience to resistance

A free and fair republic is unfortunately not a given in today’s world. And any hope of change can only occur if all eligible Lebanese voters take part in the electoral process – a duty which is inscribed in the Preamble of Lebanon’s Constitution: “The people are the source of authority and sovereignty; they shall exercise these powers through the constitutional institutions.”[36]  Yet, ask a handful of Lebanese citizens if they plan on voting this May, and in all likelihood their reply may be some version of the following: What’s the point? Nothing will ever change. This is the sort of despondency that those who grip onto power without accountability strive for; to break the will of society and have them believe their government does not function or serve its people. If citizens fall into this narrative, they inherently disengage and lose sight of what is being taken away. Once citizens cease to exercise their constitutional right to vote, corruption has the ability to become perpetually systematic – and almost impossible to eliminate.

Fortunately, there are many forces at work attempting to counter this approach and cultivate an alternative Lebanon – one that serves all of its citizens irrespective of religion or political background. This is where the NGO Citizens & Politics comes in. What started out as an informal get-together between friends to discuss politics and culture, while debating the mainstream political narrative, has since developed into a functioning and licensed NGO today. Citizens & Politics provides a platform for debates and discussions, as well as training for all citizens – especially helpful for students and youth activists new to politics.

When Founder and Executive Director of Citizens & Politics, Tracy Nehmé, was asked what words of hope for the future she could share with fellow Lebanese citizens, particularly after such grim years and at a time when resistance seemed futile, she said:

“There will be no better future unless we fight for it. Showing no signs of resistance to the dire situation we are in will only prove to the government that we are willing to accept any situation they put us through. Resistance can take many shapes and forms. We are not only talking about classical acts of resistance like protesting, going on strike or planning some violent interventions. Anyone who is still in Lebanon, still working, still employing people, still participating in any way to the economy, is also resisting. It is enough to say ‘I will not accept to live this way. I deserve better’, and try, even by very small acts, to protect our ideals and the Lebanon we want for ourselves and our children.”[37]

On the importance of voter participation, Tracy encourages the Lebanese to remain engaged, no matter how bleak the current reality is: “The general feeling is that nothing will change, so why bother. One thing people seem to be missing out is that it could get worse. Not voting for the alternative will give even more credibility for the people in power and will make any attempts to crush the revolution or the protests much easier. The alternative, no matter what we think of it, is a first step towards something else. It is not a magic one-time solution. It’s a long process that will take years or decades to mature, but we have to start somewhere.”


[1] ‘Arab Barometer, Arab Barometer VI: Country Report, 2021,

[2] The World Bank, “Lebanon’s Crisis: Great Denial in the Deliberate Depression,” Press Release, January 25, 2022,

[3] Arab Barometer, Arab Barometer VI: Country Report, 2021,

[4] Richard Salame, “Which Candidates Made It onto Party Lists Ahead of Lebanon’s Parliamentary Elections?” L’Orient Today, April 5, 2022,

[5] Richard Salame, “Holding Out Hope: After Presiding over Lebanon’s Collapse, Incumbents Signed Up En Masse to Run for Re-election,” L’Orient Today, March 19, 2022,

[6] Sami Atallah and Zeina El-Helou, “Lebanese Elections: Clientelism as a Strategy to Garner Votes,” The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, July 2017,

[7] Nadim El Kak, “Are the People to Blame? Debunking Counter-Revolutionary & Culturalist Arguments,” The Public Source, April 2, 2020,

[8] Hussein Dakroub, “Ahead of Elections Lebanese See No Hope for Political Change,” Al Arabiya News, March 30, 2022,

[9] Lydia Assouad, “Lebanon’s Political Economy: From Predatory to Self-Devouring,” Carnegie Middle East Center, January 14, 2021,

[10] Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Study of Perceptions and Attitudes of Lebanese Citizens Towards the Economic, Social and Political Situation in Lebanon, December 2021,

[11] The World Bank, Lebanon Economic Monitor: Lebanon Sinking (To the Top 3), Spring 2021,

[12] Human Rights Watch, Lebanon,

[13] Maha El Dahan and Alaa Kanaan, “Economic Meltdown Forces Lebanese to Flee to Unfamiliar Destinations,” Reuters, October 4, 2021,

[14] The World Bank, “Lebanon Sinking into One of the Most Severe Global Crises Episodes, amidst Deliberate Inaction,” Press Release, June 1, 2021,

[15] The World Bank, Personal Remittances, Received (% of GDP) – Lebanon,

[16] International Monetary Fund, “Oil-Price Spillovers in Lebanon: The Role of Remittances,” Lebanon: Selected Issues 2017, no. 020 (January 2017),

[17] Arwa Ibrahim and Souhayb Jawhar, “Dozens Escape Security Crackdown, Poverty in Lebanon to Join ISIL,” Al Jazeera, February 3, 2022,; “Mired in Poverty, Dozens of Lebanese Join Jihadists in Iraq,” France 24, February 8, 2022,

[18] Such a high figure is nearly unheard of in Lebanon’s skilled workforce. For example, an experienced engineer in Lebanon will take home on average $1,200 a month. See, “Engineering Average Salaries in Lebanon 2022,” Salary Explorer,

[19] United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, Where we Work,

[20] Lama Al-Arian, “In Lebanon, Palestinians Protest New Employment Restrictions,” NPR, July 26, 2019,

[21] Nohad Topalian, “Lebanon’s Economic Collapse Drives Northern Youth into Ranks of ISIS,” Al-Mashareq, February 17, 2022,

[22] Nohad Topalian, “ISIS Recruiters Prey on Lebanon’s Poor, Refugees,” Al-Mashareq, March 2, 2022,

[23] Human Rights Watch, ‘Lebanon: Evidence Implicates Officials in Beirut Blast: Targeted Sanctions, International Investigation Only Path to Justice,” August 3, 2021,

[24] Current ongoing lawsuits against Judge Tarek Bitar have forced the Beirut Port blast investigation to be put on hold at least four times in the past year. Judge Bitar, placed in charge of the investigation, has faced intense criticism particularly from ex-ministers and current elected officials who are currently under question regarding their own involvement in the explosion – even if only due to their negligence. Bitar has made numerous attempts to have himself removed from the investigation.

[25] Sunniva Rose, “Lebanon Seeks US Aid to Buy $20m Wheat a Month as Ukraine War Hits Supply,” The National, March 1, 2022,

[26] UNICEF, A Worsening Health Crisis for Children: The Consequences of the Failing Health System Has Immediate and Longer-Term Impacts on Children, April 2022,

[27] Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Study of Perceptions and Attitudes of Lebanese Citizens Towards the Economic, Social and Political Situation in Lebanon, December 2021,

[28] Sawti, Explore Alternative Parties,

[29] Richard Salame, “Age Matters: Opposition Lists Field Markedly More Young Candidates Than Traditional Parties,” L’Orient Today, April 14, 2022,

[30] Marie Jo Sader, “Verena El Amil: The 25-year-old Ready to Throw Her Hat into the Ring,’ L’Orient Today, March 22, 2022,

[31] “Verena El Amil on Student Activism, Secularism, and Changing the Law. Beirut Talks: Election Studio #3,”Beirut Talks: Election Studio, Spotify, March 29, 2022,

[32] “Diaspora Voter Registration Dashboard,” Sawti Voice,

[33] Ali Taha, “The Government Monitor No. 22 | The Controversy over Amending the 2017 Election Law,” The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, January 14, 2022,

[34] Zeina Antonios, “What Lies Behind Parliament’s Decision to Allow Expats to Vote for All 128 MPs?”  L’Orient Today, October 22, 2021,

[35] Moonyoung Joe, “Adopting a Cedar Tree Brings Diaspora Money Home,” United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), February 7, 2019,

[36] Presidency of the Republic of Lebanon, “The Lebanese Constitution: Promulgated May 23, 1926 with Its Amendments,” 1995,

[37] Author interview with Tracy Nehmé, April 9, 2022.

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