There is much talk in Beirut these days that Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for 2017 after having been postponed twice, will take place regardless of what happens in the country. In light of this it is worth looking back on an election this year that could tell us much about what lies ahead if that promise is fulfilled.
Between May 8 and May 29 the Lebanese voted in municipal elections, and, in the absence of any other objective barometer, these revealed a number of potentially significant political trends in the country. While municipal elections in Lebanon are largely local in nature, which should impose caution in drawing broader political interpretations, the recent elections were somewhat different. That’s because they were the first elections since 2009, therefore an occasion for the electorate to make its mood known.
The Sunni Challenge and the Erosion of Harirism
The elections took place at a moment when the leadership of the former prime minister, Saad Hariri, was being questioned inside his own Future Movement, inside the Sunni community, and on the national level. In two strongholds where he had displayed almost undisputed leadership over the Sunni community, Beirut and Tripoli, he received a harsh wake-up call. In both cities the results revealed cracks in the almost absolute domination Hariri once enjoyed.
In Beirut, the capital, which Hariri represents in parliament, the list he sponsored lost more than a third of Hariri’s traditional Sunni electors when compared to the last elections held in 2010. He also lost some two-thirds of the votes within Christian-majority areas, although the main Christian political forces were included in the wide alliance he forged. Beirut was thus an interesting lesson both for Hariri and for the entire political class, which had collaborated in forming the Hariri-backed list, including Hezbollah.
In Tripoli, the blow to Harirism came from within its own ranks. There a broad list sponsored by Sunni politicians—including Hariri, as well as another former prime minister, Najib Mikati, and former minister Mohammad Safadi—competed against a list supported by Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi. Rifi is a former head of the Internal Security forces and was a Hariri protégé, until he broke with Hariri over his resignation from the government (which has not been accepted by the prime minister) without Hariri’s approval. In a remarkable electoral result, Rifi’s popularity succeeded in depriving the rival list of almost half the votes in the city and in the Sunni community. The rout was near complete.
On the Sunni scene, the results were a sign of the erosion of support for Hariri, and hinted at the potential rise of adversaries on his right, who will likely view the parliamentary elections as an opportunity to exploit Sunni discontent and reinforce themselves further.
A Change of Mood in the Shia Community
The elections took place in the context of Hezbollah’s military presence in Syria. Its heavy losses there have raised serious questions about the extent of Shia mobilization behind the party in Lebanon, where many families have lost their sons in the fighting.
Lists backed by Hezbollah and its traditional Shia ally, the Amal Movement, won indisputable victories in their strongholds. However, these were narrower in many cities of the south, where traditional families as well as former leftist figures were able to mount serious challenges. The same was true in the Beqaa and Hermel, a Hezbollah bastion where the party must often contend with tribal realities that make its control less than absolute. In the Shia villages of the largely-Christian Byblos district, the solidity of the Hezbollah-Amal alliance was put to the test. Amal maneuvered with local notables and families, challenging Hezbollah, which had to accept its reversals.
What the elections and their aftermath highlighted within the Shia community is a potentially widening gap between its two strongest political forces, as well as Hezbollah’s growing difficulty in maintaining absolute control over, and loyalty in, the community. Moreover, the party, facing the same economic crisis that has affected everyone else in Lebanon, has cut back its social services to the wider Shia community, affecting its popular appeal. The party’s direct constituency, in turn, is the one paying the highest price for the conflict in Syria.
The Limited Traction of the Christian Alliance
The elections occurred weeks after a historical reconciliation between the two major Christian political parties, the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Together, they backed lists in many districts and the results allowed them to determine whether they could monopolize political representation in Christian areas in the future.
The results were mixed. In the regions where it competed together against local and other rivals, the alliance was not able to attract more than 50 percent of the Christian vote on average. In the Beqaa city of Zahleh, where the alliance waged one of its fiercest battles, the list it backed won with only 44 percent of the vote. Yet in several localities of Mount Lebanon, the North, and Akkar, smaller parties and traditional local leaders inflicted defeats on the alliance’s lists.
In other cities of Christian importance, such as Jounieh, the Lebanese Forces and FPM backed rival lists, representing a setback to their rapprochement. In the Christian districts of Beirut, the rank and file of both parties disobeyed their voting instructions because they were unhappy with the alliance that had been concluded with Hariri.
While inter-Christian reconciliation is not in itself unpopular, on the contrary, it did not grant the Lebanese Forces and the FPM a free pass to impose their political hegemony over the Christian community to the detriment of local realities. However, it will be interesting if such a sentiment carries over to parliamentary elections.
The Rise of a Promising Trend?
Though there was a feeling that elections were taking place in an atmosphere of deep popular apathy, this impression was proven wrong. Some surprising dynamics emerged, among them the mobilization of certain civil society groups.
In Beirut, the Beirut Madinati (Beirut, My City) list, made up of political ingénues, challenged a coalition of the main political and sectarian forces in the country. It was able to attract more than 30 percent of votes, even peaking at around 64 percent in some districts. The list’s focus was on municipal governance issues, which helped raise the level of participation in areas known for low turnouts.
Beirut Madinati also had its imitators in other regions of Lebanon—for example Zghorta and Baalbek—revealing an appetite for civic engagement and local action among a new generation striving for fresh ways to approach politics. This sense of disgust was already palpable with the You Stink campaign that mobilized against the government’s mishandling of the trash crisis last year. Here was an indicator that one idea is making headway: Many Lebanese are taking the view that if things are stalemated at the national level, they should at least turn their attention to local affairs and shape their immediate environment themselves. If parliamentary elections are held next year, we will be better able to see if this proactive reflex can also somehow be applied to national politics.