Like all Lebanese lives, elections challenged by lack of electricity
Finally, a Lebanese official has dared to confirm that Lebanon’s national grid is supplying the nation with only two hours of electricity per day. However, people from Lebanon will tell you that they have forgotten they receive any power from the national electricity company, since most have been forced to rely on alternatives supplied by shady local power providers. These cost households in the impoverished country hundreds of dollars per month just to connect for a few hours daily to meet their basic domestic needs.
Lebanese Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi last week announced that Electricite du Liban has demanded an upfront cash payment of $16 million to guarantee the power stays on throughout the day of Lebanon’s general election on May 15 — a sum that exceeds the total cost of holding the vote both domestically and abroad by 30 percent.
Mawlawi explained that he has had several meetings with the electricity company, in which he was told that the service could be arranged for the big day, but at a very high cost. He indicated that, like the people of the country, the government might turn to the private operators of local generators to supply power for the polling stations, particularly to keep them illuminated after the polls close to enable the counting to be done.
In my view, Lebanon’s forthcoming election is unlikely to produce a new democratic leadership that is capable of ushering the country away from its failed state status. Holding credible elections is one of the main steps Lebanon’s major donors are insisting on if they are to deliver more assistance to the country. However, if the Interior Ministry can find such funds, I recommend it use them to help those most in need in the bankrupt country instead of wasting them on a process that has seen the electoral laws amended to fit and reproduce the same political class that has been supervising the descent of Lebanon toward the abyss. For decades, Lebanon’s political, social and economic stagnation has been supervised by a corrupt political class propped up and held hostage by an armed group serving some foreign geostrategic interests that are beyond the means of such a small country.
Mawlawi is apparently adamant that the government will do all it can to ensure the election goes ahead as scheduled, despite the many rumors that it could be called off. Lebanon has been living with an unprecedented financial crisis for years, but it became more acute in 2019 and the country defaulted on paying its debts in March 2020. This has resulted in the devaluation of the Lebanese pound and the nation’s banks shutting their counters and introducing capital control, denying people access to their savings.
Power cuts that last more than 22 hours per day are not new to Lebanon. During the country’s various conflicts, the power grid has fallen victim to the missiles of warring parties. But in recent years the grid’s antiquated systems, its poor state of repair and its mismanagement in times of peace, in addition to the rampant corruption milking its budget, have led to the drying up of all necessary funds to fuel its turbines and supply consumers.
If the country’s power shortage leads to an indefinite postponement of these elections, it might be a blessing in disguise.
The international community has long demanded a complete overhaul of Lebanon’s loss-making electricity sector — which is estimated to have cost the treasury more than $40 billion in post-civil war Lebanon — as one of its basic conditions for disbursing billions of dollars in desperately needed financial support.
Lebanon’s electric poverty adds to the many woes the country has been suffering from since its consociationalism-based democracy stopped in its tracks. Its political realignment closer to the whims of Syria and Iran, which spearhead the so-called resistance bloc championed by Hezbollah in Lebanon, has led to the imposition of sanctions, the drying up of investment in the country, the default of its financial institution and the collapse of the national currency.
Mawlawi said recently that, one way or another, he will make sure the streets will be lit on election day in Lebanon. But what about the longer term?
A lack of power is not the only problem Lebanon is facing ahead of the forthcoming vote, with Western states still wanting the election to go ahead despite an electoral law that has been tailored to favor one political group at the expense of the rest.
Few in the country believe the polls are likely to transform Lebanon’s fortunes, apart from by further cementing the grip on power of the Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah and its allies. The 2018 election gave these groups their first majority in parliament.
The decision by Sunni leader Saad Hariri to step away from politics opens the way for Hezbollah and its allies to extend their already deep sway over the country, rendering it even more of a bastion of Iranian influence in the heart of the Arab world.
Since Lebanon’s independence, insecurity, civil strife, war and geopolitics have led to the cancelation or postponement of many elections, allowing caretaker parliaments and governments to stay in power beyond their expiry date. Lebanon today faces existential threats rarely seen in any nation state, with its debts ballooning, its people sinking further below the poverty line and its brain drain accelerating. If the lack of electricity leads to an indefinite postponement of these elections, it might be a blessing in disguise, as any new parliament is unlikely to produce a political class that is ready to reform and allow every Lebanese household to be supplied by the national electricity grid for many years to come.
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.