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Lebanese candidates push for change in a corrupt electoral system

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Lebanon is going through one of the worst economic crises in recent history. Food and fuel prices are way up. Certain medicines are hard to find. Power outages sometimes drag on for days. Tomorrow, voters have a chance to hold the ruling establishment to account in parliamentary elections. But NPR's Arezou Rezvani in Beirut explains, it won't be easy for new candidates to break through a system that's built to keep the same usual parties in charge.

NINA JAMAL: (Non-English language spoken).

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: It's the end of the workday, and 70-year-old Nina Jamal has stopped by a corner market here in central Beirut. She's a regular here. She owns a little clothing boutique just down the street.

JAMAL: It's very difficult to stay alive in Lebanon - very difficult.

REZVANI: She remembers a time when her country was prosperous.

JAMAL: Lebanon was like Switzerland in our time. Now it became a hell.

REZVANI: In the past two years, the country's currency has lost 90% of its value. There are widespread power outages, and people here have been protesting government corruption and mismanagement. Hyperinflation has made it hard for people to buy food.

JAMAL: This is butter, OK?

REZVANI: Jamal says that block of butter now costs 20 times what it used to be a couple of years ago. The struggle to keep up with living expenses and business costs has all been really stressful for her.

JAMAL: It's hell, I'm telling you. Really, it's hell.

REZVANI: When I ask who she blames, she doesn't hesitate.

JAMAL: We blame everybody. We blame Hezbollah. We blame the government. We blame all the parties here.

REZVANI: It's against this backdrop that Lebanon will hold parliamentary elections Sunday. And the hard economic times might create an opening for new candidates to get some votes, like progressive candidate Ghada Ghanem, who wants to break the hold that sectarian parties - Sunni, Shia, Christian - have on the parliament.

GHADA GHANEM: I've never been into politics. I am a singer, and I am an artist.

REZVANI: Or 26-year-old Verena El Amil, a lawyer who's running independently, not on one of the big party lists.

VERENA EL AMIL: Hello.

REZVANI: Hi, Verena.

EL AMIL: How are you? Yes.

REZVANI: I catch up with El Amil one recent afternoon at her home in between campaign events. Many young Lebanese have left the country to start a new life, but El Amil is on a mission.

EL AMIL: I wanted to confront the regime that is responsible for the economic crisis, responsible for the brain drain. So to me, it's a fight against the regime.

REZVANI: But for newer candidates, winning a seat in parliament won't be easy. Many can't afford to pay for TV appearances. Most voters can't afford to travel back to their ancestral homes to vote, a requirement by law. But more than anything, there's the issue of Lebanon's complicated system of gerrymandering. It was constructed around sectarian groups to help end the civil war in 1990, but it tends to favor sectarian parties still. And one of the most powerful now is Hezbollah. I went to go see one of their campaign rallies.

I'm in southern Beirut. I'm at a rally for Hassan Nasrallah. He's the leader of Hezbollah. And it's a very crowded rally. Everyone's here - men, women, a lot of young children. They're all waving Hezbollah flags, Lebanese flags. You see a few Iranian flags in the mix.

Emad Alikalooq, a taxi driver, was among those in the crowd. "Nasrallah is the crown on our heads," he tells me. I ask him how he's managed during the economic crisis.

EMAD ALIKALOOQ: (Through interpreter) It has slaughtered us.

REZVANI: He says he's voting for Hezbollah, and they're helping people get to the polls.

ALIKALOOQ: (Through interpreter) There are cars. There are buses or vans that will help people go to the voting stations - or gas coupons, but no money.

REZVANI: Coordinated and motivated, Hezbollah is getting out the vote this election in ways that are still beyond reach for newer parliamentary candidates. Arezou Rezvani, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.