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Lebanon's economic crisis will be on voters' minds during parliamentary elections


Lebanon is a country in freefall. A United Nations report out this week slammed Lebanon's government for its, quote, "callous destruction of the country's economy." The local currency has lost nearly all of its value in recent years. Food prices have spiraled out of control, and power cuts are frequent. It's against this backdrop that the country will hold parliamentary elections this weekend.

And here to tell us more about that is NPR's Arezou Rezvani, who is in Beirut. Hi, Arezou.


CHANG: All right. So does it feel like the economic crisis there is the main issue driving voters this election cycle?

REZVANI: It does feel that way. I think there are two big issues on voters' minds these days; first is the economy. People here are having a very hard time affording basic foods like milk and cooking oil and finding certain medicines. Getting money out of the bank is not just a simple errand here anymore. You have to sometimes wait hours in line to get a couple of hundred bucks out. The poverty rate in the country has jumped from 30% to an astonishing 80%.

And what goes hand in hand with this economic crisis, people here will tell you, is corruption. For years, the government and the banking sector mismanaged and squandered cash reserves. And finally, a couple of years ago, the entire system collapsed. And so people here have been living with those consequences ever since.

CHANG: Right. So this will be the first election since the onset of this economic crisis. Does it seem like there's a greater appetite now for newer parties, newer candidates?

REZVANI: Yeah, there is. But the question is, can they break through the establishment? There are many more opposition parties and newer, fresher faces this cycle than in years past.

I've been spending time with some of the opposition parties. Rania al-Masri is a member of a progressive party named Citizens in a State. It kind of has the look and feel of the Bernie Sanders campaign - very young, very diverse. Here's how she described her party's positions to me at a recent campaign event.

RANIA AL-MASRI: We stand for full separation of church and state, and we stand in rejection of a bankers' Ponzi scheme. We stand in rejection of sectarian political system. We stand to recognize that we can't solve this problem piecemeal.

REZVANI: So clearly not shy about calling out the banking sector. And you can hear her also proposing a pretty provocative idea of a more non-sectarian political system. And given how desperate the situation is here at the moment, it's kind of created an opening for parties to float bigger, bolder ideas, you know, bold when you consider the support and alliances groups like Hezbollah have established here over the years.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, how hard is it for new candidates to get elected inside Lebanon's political system?

REZVANI: So the voting process here is definitely not set up to welcome political newcomers, and there are a few reasons why. There's the fact that here in Lebanon, by law, you have to vote in your ancestral home. And with hyperinflation, it's very expensive for people to get around when they can't even afford a tank of gas. This came up in a conversation I was having with Nina Jamal, owner of a clothing store here in Beirut.

NINA JAMAL: I cannot vote because I vote in the south of Lebanon. To go there, I need 1 million lira, about $50, to go there and come back. I cannot afford it.

REZVANI: So some of the most financially strapped people may have to sit this election out. On top of that, it's also hard for some candidates to get airtime here because TV networks charge for appearances.

But more than anything, I think it's Lebanon's power sharing model of government, which has helped put an end to Lebanon's civil war years ago, that's a little bit of an issue. It was designed to guarantee representation of Sunnis, Shias and Christians, but it froze the sectarian parties in place. And what's emerged is a system of political gerrymandering, and it's allowed sectarian parties to seize and hold onto power. All of this together has a way of limiting a new candidate's chances of getting elected. And it's left a lot of people here skeptical that this election will change much.

CHANG: That is NPR's Arezou Rezvani talking to us from Beirut about Lebanon's upcoming parliamentary elections. Thank you so much, Arezou.

REZVANI: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Arezou Rezvani is a senior editor for NPR's Morning Edition and founding editor of Up First, NPR's daily news podcast.