Lebanese expatriates vote in parliamentary elections
Opposition parties hope for significant diaspora votes amid the economic crisis, but analysts say status quo likely to be upheld.
Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanese expatriates have begun casting their votes in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, almost three years into a crippling economic crisis that has decimated the Lebanese pound, sparked unprecedented inflation, and pushed thousands of people to leave the country.
Lebanese expats living in 10 countries – including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, and Iraq – will vote on Friday, while the diaspora living in 48 other countries will vote on Sunday.
Lebanese citizens at home will vote on May 15.
A total of 244,442 Lebanese abroad have registered to cast their ballots in the election, more than double the number of expats who signed up to vote in the previous polls in 2018.
While many opposition groups are hoping to gain significant votes from the diaspora amid the economic crisis, some analysts say Lebanon’s traditional parties will likely remain dominant after the election.
Mohammed Rida, 28, left Beirut less than a year ago after finding a job in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He grew up in a family that backed former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who leads the Sunni-majority Future Movement party.
Though he never closely followed politics, he may opt for an anti-establishment group this time.
“I usually turn to friends of mine who are a lot more informed than I am in the political sphere to choose,” Rida told Al Jazeera.
Lebanon holds parliamentary elections every four years, with seats allocated for its wide array of sects under its fragile sectarian power-sharing system. The presidency is allocated to a Maronite Christian, the premiership to a Sunni Muslim, and the parliament speaker is a Shia Muslim.
Those 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 the parliament in the 2022 election to represent the diaspora.
However, following pressure from independent political parties and expats, members of parliament rejected adding those six seats, which means expats will vote within the existing 128 seats.
‘Lebanon doesn’t deserve this’
Millions have left Lebanon over the past decades, taking their skills abroad to find better opportunities and secure a stable future in the face of instability, systematic corruption, and financial mismanagement. While there are no clear numbers, many estimates claim that more Lebanese people live abroad than within the tiny country itself, home to some 6.5 million people, including Lebanese and refugees.
But in the past few years, an unsuccessful uprising against the status quo, the economic collapse, and the devastating 2020 Beirut Port blast drove many more to leave the country.
Resentment over systematic corruption, financial mismanagement, and disregard for worsening living conditions is at an all-time high.
Software engineer Jack Demirji, 35, left Lebanon for Sao Paulo, Brazil, in early 2021. He said he did not want to leave, but “the Beirut blast forced me”.
“Although I don’t believe that the new election is going to change anything, I’m going to vote … I feel it’s a responsibility,” Demirji told Al Jazeera. “For sure, I won’t vote for the traditional political parties.”
After taking part in mass protests in late 2019, he says he was frustrated by the inability of anti-establishment parties to form united electoral lists to take on the country’s ruling parties.
“I believe we have great potential in the Lebanese people but everyone wants to be the leader,” he said.
Demirji says he cares about Lebanon, but does not plan on moving back after losing his savings in the bank as the Lebanese pound’s value against the dollar has slumped by about 90 percent, and struggling with crippling power cuts and fuel shortages in the past year. He says he will only visit to see family and friends.
“When I was living in Lebanon, my greatest goal was how can I get electricity, from where do I put fuel for my car … those stupid little things,” he said. “But after I left Lebanon I started to focus on myself to see how I can improve myself, [and] I started to put meaningful goals and achieve them.”
In Paris, France, 26-year-old nurse Rita El Daher is not relishing a 90-minute trip to vote, but is desperate for any kind of change.
“I’m voting because this is the only time my voice will be heard for the next four years,” El Daher told Al Jazeera.
She lost one of her friends in the Beirut Port explosion and worked at a hospital in the capital that was badly damaged and nearly put out of commission. She spent that dreadful night treating hundreds of patients.
El-Daher is among an estimated 30 percent of Lebanese nurses who have left the country since the economic crisis took hold in 2019.
But she does not have hope in the divided anti-establishment parties.
“I will be voting for whoever will be fighting against Hezbollah,” El Daher said, citing the Iran-backed armed movement. “Lebanon doesn’t deserve this. My country is heaven.”
Georgia Dagher, a researcher at Beirut-based think tank The Policy Initiative, says it is unlikely that the Lebanese diaspora will swing the vote in favour of opposition parties.
“People usually think the diaspora are one group of people, but we need to remember that they left in different waves,” Dagher told Al Jazeera. “Some left during the civil war and might be attached to a traditional party, and those who left recently are more likely to vote for opposition groups.”
Lebanon’s mosaic of sectarian political parties have a strong presence in the diaspora and have loyal support in countries where the diaspora moved generations ago, including in the United States, Canada, Australia, and across Africa.
Dagher says younger, more recent emigrants have the possibility of swinging the vote in favour of some anti-establishment candidates in some districts.
“But we can assume the overwhelming majority will still vote for traditional parties,” she said.