With Lebanon’s parliamentary elections scheduled for May 6, it has been almost a decade since the last elections were held in 2009, during which time the country has gone through major transformations.
In this period, the rift that existed between Lebanon’s two contending political coalitions—the March 8 and March 14 alignments—withered away. However, the promise of more effective governance was never fulfilled as the Lebanese struggled with major domestic problems, such as continuing electricity shortages, a major garbage crisis, and an increasingly alarming economic situation.
The elections themselves will be based on a strange form of proportional representation, which will alter the historical pattern of electoral behavior. That is why, in theory at least, the elections should have represented an exciting moment of renewal for political life and the country’s elites, while creating an opportunity for addressing the country’s challenges. They could also have been used to examine how the new law has affected the degrees of continuity and change in the Lebanese political landscape.
Instead, all the indications are that Lebanon is heading toward one of the dullest elections since the end of the war in 1990. No significant surprises appear to be looming, nor are there major political stakes, or programs, mobilizing the attention of voters. The political divisions of the past have given way to a sometimes surreal web of opportunistic alliances, while in the pre-election phase newer alternative political forces from Lebanon’s civil society appear to have failed to live up to expectations based on their previous performance.
The electoral law divides Lebanon into fifteen constituencies, uneven in size, number of seats, and number of voters. Some of these constituencies combine several of Lebanon’s smaller administrative districts (qada’), some are formed by a single qada’, and some are made up of a single governorate (muhafaza), or large administrative district. Such gerrymandering is an outcome of the narrow electoral interests of those who devised the law.
Taking a step back from the intricacies of the law, one can derive some general conclusions. Except for the Shi‘a alliance of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, Lebanon’s other major political forces have failed to form joint electoral lists on the national level. Some are allied in a number of constituencies and competing in others. In several constituencies, political forces that are almost identical in their nature and alignments will be pitted against each other solely because of personal rivalries. All this is to the detriment of any coherent political program, which has confused voters.
What are some of the things to watch for on election day, which could tell us something about the state of Lebanese politics in general? One is undoubtedly related to Prime Minister Saad Hariri. This is especially relevant after the episode last November when Hariri was forced to resign while in Saudi Arabia, before backtracking on his resignation. Subsequently, the prime minister was again embraced by the Saudis, even if this did not imply that he would prioritize political alliances with those parties that had been part of the March 14 alignment, something the Saudis favored. Rather, Hariri’s decision to ally himself in the elections with the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun and his son in law Gebran Bassil has proven resilient, and has been legitimized by Hariri as a way of drawing Aoun and Bassil away from their alliance with Hezbollah.
In part, Hariri sees his relationship with Aoun as a way of ensuring that he will return as prime minister after the elections. Hariri’s resignation in Saudi Arabia, and its aftermath, ended an inter-Christian rapprochement between Aoun and the second major Christian political party, the Lebanese Forces. The reason is that the Lebanese Forces came out of the affair looking as if they opposed the strengthened political ties between Hariri and Aoun, which had helped bring both men to power. The relationship between the Christian parties will have longer-term repercussions in the run-up to the next presidential election in five years. That’s because both are vying for the role of principal representative of Lebanon’s Christians.
With regard to Christian leadership, one race in particular will have a bearing on what happens in the future, and could even be viewed as a primary for the presidential election. In the northern district of Bsharri-Zghorta-Koura-Batroun, three major Maronite Christian pretenders to the presidency will have a stake in the outcome, even if they are not necessarily candidates themselves: Bassil, the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, and the Marada Party leader Suleiman Franjieh. How each of these politicians fares will determine their appeal and legitimacy to possibly present themselves as successors to Aoun.
Overall, the March 8 alignment has proven much more adept than March 14 at averting fragmentation. However, that does not mean that there are no potential problems. Particularly significant will be what happens to the main Shi‘a parties, Hezbollah and Amal. Many indicators suggest that the two have lost traction within their constituencies. This could be a result of Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian conflict, which has drained the Shi‘a community. It could be that the Shi‘a, like all other Lebanese communities, are suffering from the shortcomings of their political representatives. Or it could be that the new election law opened cracks through which rivals of the two parties within the Shi‘a community could potentially enter political life. In the two Shi‘a-majority areas of southern Lebanon and the northern Beqaa Valley, relatively well organized alternative political forces have risen to challenge Hezbollah and Amal, even if their ability to undermine the power of the parties is likely to remain limited.
In their relations with other allies, Hezbollah and Amal have also had to contend with the growing willingness of those forces to affirm themselves politically. For instance, Hezbollah has shown irritation with Bassil, the Aounists’ chief election strategist, who has sought to dictate terms to his closest allies in the formation of joint candidate lists. This leads to a question that many people are asking today, both domestically and abroad: Will Hezbollah remain the dominant force in Lebanon after the election? And what can we expect from the aftermath?
The likelihood is that Hezbollah will continue to retain a dominant national role, thanks to the probable fragmentation of the political landscape, a process that the law on proportional representation will only exacerbate. Because of the erosion of March 14, rising competition within other sects (with new Sunni figures challenging Saad Hariri, Christian competition over who will succeed Aoun, and the fact that Druze leader Walid Joumblatt is having to share the Druze scene with rivals), and a Shi‘a speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, who is older and feebler, therefore will have less latitude to maneuver with regard to Hezbollah, it appears that the party will retain its strength in the years ahead. Moreover, divisive issues such as Hezbollah’s weapons and the controversy over its participation in regional conflicts are almost entirely absent from the electoral campaigns, indicating implicit acceptance of the party’s domestic hegemony.
If there seemed to be one bright spot in the elections it was the promise of civil society. After the prominent role played by civil society groups in the garbage crisis of 2015, and in the municipal elections of 2016, optimism seemed possible. However, this was not to be. Falling into the long-established traps of Lebanese politics, civil society groups ended up losing some strong figures to traditional political forces, and sometimes even chose to ally themselves with members of the same political class they pretend to be contesting. For the silent majority, this will probably leave a bitter taste. It will also heighten voter apathy and a feeling of estrangement toward a political system that, through its ability to coopt, bribe, and sideline meaningful debate, has shown a remarkable capacity to survive.