BEIRUT, Lebanon — On stage, Lebanese politicians spoke of defending national sovereignty, fighting corruption and fixing the state. Its leader said that he would fight to disarm Hezbollah, the political party that is also the most powerful military force in Lebanon.
But those concerns were far from the mind of Mohammed Siblini, 57, who, like many Lebanese, had seen his life fall apart in the past two years as the country collapsed.
The free fall of the national currency meant that his monthly salary from a car rental company had fallen from $2,000 to $115, he said. The fact that the state did not provide him with electricity meant that most of his earnings went into a generator to keep his lights on. What remained did not cover the small pleasures that had been, until recently, a normal part of life.
“I want meat!” Mr. Siblini yelled at the politicians. “Get us a kilogram 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 has gotten for the average citizen in that period, and how little the country’s political elite has done to cushion the blow.
The vote is the public’s first opportunity to formally respond to its leaders’ performance, so what is at stake is not just who wins which seats, but the broader question of whether Lebanon’s political system is capable of fix its many dysfunctions.
Few analysts think it is, at least in the short term.
The complex social composition of the country, with 18 officially recognized religious sects and a history of civil conflict, leads many voters to choose their co-religionists, even if they are corrupt.
And in a country where citizens look to a party boss to cut red tape or get their children to work in government, corruption actually helps established political parties serve their constituents.
But the collapse has put new pressure on that old system.
The crisis began in late 2019, when protests against the political elite spread through the streets of the capital, Beirut, and other cities.
That exacerbated pressure on banks, which had been engaging in creative accounting with the central bank to prop up the currency and deliver unsustainable returns to depositors.
Critics have called it a Ponzi scheme, and it failed suddenly. The value of the Lebanese pound began a slide that would erase 95 percent 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 skyrocketed, businesses went bankrupt, unemployment skyrocketed, and doctors, nurses and other professionals left the country in search of better wages abroad.
The state, which had never managed to provide 24-hour electricity, was so strapped for cash that it now provides hardly anything, not even to turn on traffic lights.
To make matters worse, a huge explosion at the port of Beirut in August 2020, also caused by mismanagement, killed more than 200 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.
Despite losses that the government says total $72 billion, none of the banks have failed, the central bank chief remains in office, and none of the politicians who backed the policies that led to the collapse have been held accountable. . Some of them are running for the elections on Sunday, and they are likely to win.
Many of the candidates are familiar faces who would have a hard time marketing themselves as agents of change.
They include Nabih Berri, the 84-year-old Speaker of Parliament, who has held that post, uninterrupted, for nearly three decades; Ali Hassan Khalil, a former finance minister who worked to disrupt 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 sanctioned last year. Mr. Bassil denies the allegation.
Hezbollah, which has a substantial bloc in Parliament and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries, fields a variety of candidates. Others are warlords from the Lebanese civil war, which ended in 1990, or, in some cases, their children.
Many voters are simply fed up and have little faith that their votes will make a difference.
“A candidate comes now and says ‘I’ll do this and I’ll do that,’ and I tell them, ‘Many came before you and couldn’t change a thing,’” said Claudette Mhanna, a seamstress.
He said he would like to vote for a new figure who came out of the 2019 protests, but because of the way elections are run, he has to vote for lists that include candidates he hates.
“We are suffocating,” he said. “If I think about going and voting, I can’t think who I would vote for.”
Many of those running have ties to the financial system, which Olivier De Schutter, a United Nations poverty expert, says shares responsibility for the “man-made crisis” in Lebanon that resulted in human rights violations. .
“Life savings have been wiped out by a reckless banking sector lured by a pro-interest monetary policy,” he wrote in a report published last week. “An entire generation has been condemned to destitution.”
On Friday, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reported that a son of the governor of Lebanon’s central bank had transferred more than $6.5 million out of the country at a time when most depositors were unable to access their savings.
Those transactions were made by AM Bank, whose president, Marwan Kheireddine, bought a $9.9 million Manhattan penthouse from actress Jennifer Lawrence in August 2020, as Lebanon’s economy was collapsing.
Mr. Kheireddine has said that the purchase was for a company he managed, not for him personally.
He is now running for Parliament and told The New York Times in an interview that he wants to use his experience to help fix the economy.
“I have a background in finance,” he said. “I’m not going to make any promises, but I will do my best to work hard to get depositors’ money back.”
For many Lebanese, party loyalty remains strong.
“There is no list that deserves my vote more than Hezbollah,” said Ahmad Zaiter, 22, a university student from Baalbek, in eastern Lebanon.
He said that Hezbollah’s weapons were necessary to defend the country and that the party had helped its supporters weather the crisis by providing cheap medicine from Syria and Iran.
“If there is a party other than Hezbollah that is offering weapons to the government to strengthen it so that we can defend ourselves or offering services, then where is it?” he said.
Many newbies are also applying, promoting themselves as cleaner and closer to the people. Most projections show them winning only a limited number of seats in the 128-member Parliament, with analysts expecting them to struggle without the infrastructure of a political party.
“I will be the voice of the people inside Parliament, but I cannot promise that I will fix the electricity or the infrastructure,” said Asma-Maria Andraos, who is running in Beirut. “I cannot say that I will stop corruption, which is deeply rooted in our system.”
Many Lebanese who have the means have already left the country, and many more are looking for ways out. A recent survey by the Arab Barometer research group found that 48 percent of Lebanese citizens were looking to emigrate. For those between the ages of 18 and 29, the percentage rose to 63 percent, the survey found.
Fares Zouein, a sandwich shop owner in Beirut, said he intended to vote for his local political boss, whom he declined to name, because the man uses his position to help the neighborhood.
“That’s our problem in Lebanon: if you don’t have someone to help you, you’re stuck,” said Zouein, 50.
He, too, had little faith that the election would improve life.
“That is why everyone in Lebanon has three goals in life: to get a second passport, to open a bank account abroad, and to send their children abroad to go to school,” he said.