Last Sunday, Lebanon held its first parliamentary elections since 2009. The results confirmed what had been said before the voting, namely that what would emerge is a fragmented parliament, benefiting Hezbollah as it enters a new phase as an Iranian foreign legion in the region.
Almost immediately attention turned to how well Hezbollah and its allies in the Amal Movement had performed. This was hardly surprising, since both parties have had a lock on Shi‘a votes in the last four elections, while the fact that the election law was based on proportional representation allowed them to bring more allies into parliament, mainly pro-Syrian politicians. This encouraged Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, commenting on Hezbollah’s gains, to tweet the following: “Hezbollah = Lebanon,” picking up on a similar tweet months ago by his colleague, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Some news outlets went so far as to affirm that Hezbollah had “secured at least 65 seats” in parliament, in other words a simple majority. This was profoundly misleading, however, even if the reality was actually more interesting and potentially more troubling.
The idea that Hezbollah now controls a majority in Lebanon’s parliament came from including the bloc of Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his son in law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, with the tally of Hezbollah’s and its allies’ seats. While the Aounists were aligned with Hezbollah after 2006, since Aoun was elected president in 2016 the nature of that relationship has changed. The ties are still in place, but where in the past Aounists saw them as a means of securing Aoun’s presidency, today, because Aoun embodies the state as president, they regard themselves as custodians of the state.
That is why Hezbollah sought to use the elections as a means of hedging against the possibility that the Aounists might take a more independent line with respect to the party than before. What worried Hezbollah was Aoun’s relatively recent alliance with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, whom Hezbollah regards as potentially its main adversary. Hezbollah got what it wanted. Following the elections, Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies had enough parliamentary seats to constitute a blocking third in the legislature. That means they can prevent the election of any president they oppose, for instance, or thwart legislative quorums. It also means that Hezbollah and its allies can demand a similar balance in the government, allowing them to hinder governmental decisions. Hezbollah had this ability before because of the Aounists, but the latest elections allow it to retain such power in the event the Aounists go their own way on issues Hezbollah considers vital.
It’s undeniable that this means the party has tremendous leverage in the Lebanese state. Yet the “Hezbollah = Lebanon” mantra fails to consider that Hezbollah has to constantly adapt to change in order to retain its dominance in the system. And the details matter when looking for ways to limit Hezbollah’s margin of maneuver. The party has the means to intimidate, but it also knows that constantly resorting to intimidation will quickly mobilize opposition to its agenda in Lebanon’s sectarian context. That is why its preferred stance is to function within state institutions when it can do so, which also means constantly keeping a lookout for ways that these institutions can somehow be used against the party.
In light of this, one notable result of the elections was the expansion of the Lebanese Forces bloc, which strongly opposes Hezbollah, to fifteen, making it one of the larger parliamentary blocs. In the greater scheme of things this may not sound like much. However, it does mean that the two largest Christian blocs, the Lebanese Forces and the Aounists, now control a majority of Christian seats. Both were rivals once, but because of the proportional election law their relationship is no longer driven by the tensions generated by the winner-take-all basis of the previous law, which hurt the Lebanese Forces in particular.
The two parties come out of the elections empowered and unified around one idea, that of upholding a Lebanese state project. The Aounists do so because their leader is Lebanon’s head of state, while the Lebanese Forces do so because they oppose Hezbollah’s undermining of the state, and feel that their own leader, Samir Geagea, may one day become president. The existence of a large Christian bloc broadly united around the idea of defending the state, the belief that the final authority on matters of war, peace, and security must be the state, is not negligible, especially when a majority of Sunnis and Druze agree with it. Hezbollah may blithely ignore this, but there may be costs in doing so, especially if the party leads Lebanon into regional conflicts the country can ill afford.
To limit a reading of Lebanon’s elections to Hezbollah would mean missing the myriad other dimensions that came into play on Sunday. Indeed, the elections underlined precisely why Lebanon, in its sheer complexity, cannot equal Hezbollah. However, it’s also undeniable that foreign media outlets had eyes only for what the vote meant for the party, and that this will resonate in foreign capitals, where Lebanon’s fate is being considered.
However, to assume, as Naftali Bennett did, that “Hezbollah = Lebanon,” means deleting that large proportion of Lebanese, very likely a majority, who simply reject the party’s agenda. That this should be done in the shadow of an election that affirmed Lebanon’s diversity and showed that Hezbollah can, at best, rely solidly on about a third of parliamentarians merits consideration. There will be no sudden victories against Hezbollah, but nor is Lebanon a branch of the party as some people continue to insist. Whether now or in the future, Hezbollah’s greatest enemy will remain the Lebanese state, and what the elections showed is that Hezbollah, paradoxically, knows it has to be a part of that state to better escape it.