Carlos Eddé | Head of Lebanon’s National Bloc Party
Yes and no. Yes, because new faces will reach parliament; because for the first time civil society is actively participating in the elections; and because Hezbollah will tighten its grip on the country.
But mainly no, because the intrinsic values of Lebanese society have not changed. Lebanon is a divided, sectarian country where clientelism is the major force driving political culture. While it has the appearance of a democracy, it is in fact a plutocratic oligarchy. Electoral lists have no political cohesion or logic and election laws are always designed to protect the ruling class. The present one has an even more hideous characteristic in that it has transformed the electoral campaign outside areas controlled by Hezbollah into a general saloon brawl among foes and allies as well.
It has been estimated that no less than 35 percent of the votes cast in Lebanon’s previous elections were paid for. And this year the percentage is on the rise. As for wannabe parliamentarians, being integrated into a candidates list often involves paying large sums of money in order to be taken on by list leaders—an auction by political hotshots. So while some names might change, the profile of the parliamentarians will remain the same, only more venal, and it will end up being “business as usual.”
Walid Choucair | Director of Lebanon news at Al-Hayat newspaper
Change may come in form rather than content, because the electoral law, based on a proportional system, will be applied for the first time. Groups in society who would not have entered parliament previously may now have an opportunity to do so. There are 128 seats in parliament, divided evenly between Christians and Muslims, then subdivided into the different sects of each of the two major religions. To mix proportional representation, which is supposed to enhance an advanced, secular system offering representation to a wide array of groups, with an archaic sectarian system means implementing a hybrid and complicated law. This will be further complicated by the introduction of what is known as a preferential vote, whereby voters will, additionally, vote for one candidate on their list, who most likely will be from the same sect as they. This will disperse the votes in each list of candidates, with none being guaranteed of a clear majority.
In terms of politics no major changes are expected. The unique system may allow Sunnis aligned with Hezbollah to win some seats, perhaps giving the party and its allies the ability to block crucial decisions—such as candidates Hezbollah does not want in future presidential elections, or efforts to push the party to make concessions on its weapons. At the same time, the chances of a breakthrough by candidates opposed to Hezbollah are very limited.
Bashshar Haidar | Professor of philosophy at the American University of Beirut
Contrary to what many are accustomed to think, one thing limiting the possibility of change through the democratic process in Lebanon is not the existing sectarian electoral or political system. Rather, it is the sectarian political choices of average voters. Such choices would determine the outcome of elections even under a non-sectarian electoral system. Iraq is a case in point, where voters make sectarian choices under a non-sectarian electoral system. Therefore, electoral laws in Lebanon are unlikely to make a difference, at least in the short and medium term.
A more important factor that limits the ability of democratic choice to introduce significant change is the unmatched military might of Hezbollah. The ability and willingness of Hezbollah to use its brute force to impose its political will was demonstrated in its military takeover of western Beirut, and its attempts to do so in the mountains, in May 2008. The events of that day demonstrated to Hezbollah’s rivals the tight limits of any democratic victories they might win. Yet, perhaps a vote despite, and against, these limitations remains a worthy act of political defiance and resistance.
Mohanad Hage Ali | Communications director at the Carnegie Middle East Center
There are several ways that the elections can impact Lebanon’s politics, negatively or positively. On the one hand they can result in a Hezbollah-friendly parliament. The current hybrid law, the tenth in the history of the Lebanese republic, was largely designed by the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah. Both sought to substantially decrease the blocs of their rivals in the last elections of 2009—mainly those of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and of Walid Joumblatt, the Druze leader. The gerrymandered districts and the fact that the law introduces proportional representation could allow Hezbollah’s allies from other sects, specifically Sunnis and Alawites, to win. If a Hezbollah-friendly majority dominates parliament, this would provide the party with stronger leverage in Lebanon, and perhaps even allow it to form a “war cabinet,” excluding Hariri, in case a conflict with Israel seems imminent.
On the other hand Hezbollah may fail. There are two ways to envisage a major Hezbollah setback. The first is through the defeat of key Hezbollah allies in the party’s strongholds. The defeat of Jamil al-Sayyed, a former head of the General Security directorate, in the Baalbeck-Hermel district, or the defeat of As‘ad Hardan, the leader of the pro-Syrian regime Syrian Social Nationalist Party, in South Lebanon would be a slap to the party. A second major setback would come if Hezbollah and its allies failed to secure a majority in parliament, with Hariri and his allies regaining the healthy majority they enjoy today.
The elections would also affect Lebanon positively if a number of independent candidates, including those who took part in the country’s 2015 civil protest movement, enter parliament, or achieve good results in challenging the electoral lists backed by the political class. This is significant as the country’s past electoral laws had blocked independent candidates. Such successes could be stepping stones on the path to mounting more serious challenges in future elections.