Jabs for votes: Lebanon’s oligarchs turn to Covid bribery

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s cash-strapped leaders are bribing their base with free Covid-19 jabs ahead of next year’s elections, in what observers say is the latest variant on an old corruption trick.

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The “vaccine for vote” system builds on decades-old patronage practices that have seen leaders buy their way into office by offering voters money or public sector employment.

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But with state resources stretched to their limit by a severe economic crisis and international aid dwindling due to a failure to deliver promised reforms, politicians are turning to Covid jabs to stock up on political capital.

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“Political forces are trying to directly or indirectly make themselves a part of the equation with regards to the vaccine campaign, primarily because it is a profitable investment,” said a member of the state-run National Vaccination Committee who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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Vax pact

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The Lebanese government, with the help of international agencies, provides free jabs of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine on a priority basis.

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It started its vaccination campaign in February, but the rollout was initially slow, forcing many, including political leaders, to turn to private suppliers providing Sputnik doses.

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With more than half the population living below the poverty line and the Lebanese pound sliding rapidly against the dollar on the black market, vaccines are a luxury for many.

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Two Sputnik doses are sold to companies and associations for $38, which amounts to 500,000 Lebanese pounds at the black market rate, or around three quarters of the minimum wage.

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Firas, a former insurance broker, had registered along with his wife for state-sponsored vaccination.

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But when a political party offered him free jabs, he chose not to wait for the government.

######60,000 benefited from party handouts###

“I have been unemployed for six months. How would I have afforded vaccines for two people?” said the 52-year-old, who declined to name the party that sponsored his Sputnik dose.

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The militant Hezbollah movement, an Iran-backed party that boasts major welfare institutions, including several hospitals, says it is not distributing vaccines.

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With health minister Hamad Hassan hailing from its ranks, Hezbollah can rely solely on the state, said political scientist Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut.

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‘Impoverished followers’

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According to a 2019 report by Transparency International, nearly one in two people in Lebanon is offered a bribe in return for their vote, while more than one in four receives threats if they do not comply.

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With traditional party leaders going up against a revitalised opposition in elections next year, vaccine handouts could be “exploited for political ends,” said Julien Courson, the director of the Lebanese Transparency Association.

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But vaccines aren’t the only honey pot.

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Food prices in Lebanon have soared by up to 400 per cent as of December and medicines are fast disappearing from pharmacy shelves.

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Political patrons are stepping in to ease the blow.

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The FPM will launch a platform for medicine exchange that will primarily benefit party supporters, said Marwan Zoghbi of the party’s coronavirus committee.

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People with a surplus of a certain medicine will be matched with those who are in need, he said.

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Hezbollah, which has long offered a wide array of social services, said in April that it is boosting the number of supporters who benefit from assistance.

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Services include a shopping card for discounted food items sold at select discount stores.

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But with Lebanon’s woes piling up quickly, political parties across the board will struggle to keep up.

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“Lebanese clientelism is failing because the political system does not have material resources to dispense to sectarian leaders,” said Khashan.

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“The pervasive poverty attests to the failure of the system and the inability of confessional leaders to provide for their impoverished followers.”

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