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

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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.

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.

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.

“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.

Prime minister-designate Saad Hariri, a leading figure in Lebanon’s Sunni community, organised a countrywide vaccination campaign with the help of his Future Movement in early May.

More than 7,000 people received at least one dose of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, said spokesperson Abdel Salam Moussa. Tens of thousands of new jabs are expected to arrive in the coming weeks, he told AFP.

The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), founded by President Michel Aoun, and its Christian rival the Lebanese Forces, have also distributed jabs through private initiatives organised by members or affiliates.

Elias Bou Saab, a lawmaker close to the FPM, rented out a private hospital outside Beirut until March next year for vaccination purposes.

Last month, he said he would provide “20,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to be distributed free of charge”.

Antoine Habchi of the Lebanese Forces provided jabs for 1,600 people in the eastern region of Baalbek. “The funds were raised from the diaspora,” he told AFP.