Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Lebanon recently held its first national parliamentary elections in nine years. The expectation was that there would be a major rebellion against the traditional sectarian-based parties. But the results were much less dramatic, reflecting four current political trends in the country.

The most apparent was a continuing dominance by Hizballah and Amal among the Shi‘i community with very little opposition. The second was the continued erosion of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s leadership in the Sunni community and ascendance of his political opponents. The third trend is the political reconfiguration of the Christian bloc, with the previously dominant Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) having to share leadership with the Lebanese Forces (LF), who made significant gains in the election. The last major trend pertains to civil society groups in Lebanon, which continue to struggle to compete with the large and deeply entrenched political parties. Despite a real opportunity under the new electoral law for more independent candidates and parties, the civil society groups were unable to coalesce to challenge the status quo. Furthermore, the traditional political parties with their deep pockets and established political networks were able to outmaneuver independent candidates in contested districts.

It is hard to predict what the political program of the new government will be until the cabinet is formed and a ministerial statement is drafted. But all indications point to a more unified internal front to meet the external challenges of the ongoing Syria conflict and its implications for the region. This is coupled with accumulated internal challenges—such as corruption, rising debt, electricity shortages, high unemployment and a deteriorating socio-economic outlook for the majority of Lebanese citizens.

Navigating the New Law

A new proportional electoral law, the result of long and contentious debates among all the Lebanese parties, governed the May 7 elections. Many Lebanese hoped the new law would break up the monopoly of big parties and bring in representation from smaller constituencies and civil society.

A superficial reading of the final count might indicate a significant change in Parliament with over 60 newcomers, including more independents and representatives of smaller parties. In reality, some of these newcomers are recycled politicians from previous parliaments—like Abdel Rahim Murad, Albert Mansour, Salim Aoun and Elie Frizli. Some are the sons of previous Parliament members—like Timur Jumblat, Sami Fatfat, Tarek Merhebi and Tony Frangieh. Then there are many others rotated in from the ranks of the big political parties, leaving only a dozen or so out of 128 seats held by truly independent candidates.

Despite the long wait after several parliamentary term extensions, there was lower voter turnout than the last election, with only 49 percent voting. Considering the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on advertising and illegal direct payments to voters, most observers expected a higher turnout, but it seems that most were skeptical that the new electoral law would change much.

The low turnout hurt the bigger parties like the Future Movement, which needed higher turnouts in the proportional system to beat out smaller rivals. The Beirut I district had the lowest voter turnout in the country, with only 31 percent; and Hariri’s own district, Beirut II, came in at a paltry 37 percent. This was partly a reflection of despair and disappointment in Hariri’s leadership as well as a wider rejection of the Lebanese political class across the country. Hariri did not fare well despite having a relatively productive legislative term in his most recent government, which passed the new electoral law, approved a state budget for first time in over a decade and passed legislation to manage exploitation of oil and gas fields off the coast of Lebanon.

The low turnout reflected a lack of confidence in politicians but also a rejection of the idea that the Lebanese political system can be reformed. The clientelist nature of the political system does not lend itself to risk taking by citizens. Many Lebanese depend on the patronage of politicians for jobs, government services and bureaucratic shortcuts (wasta) to survive in this sectarian country. Some blamed the lack of voter motivation on a poor understanding of the new law, which required citizens to vote for full lists of candidates in their district and also to select a preferential candidate, which could catapult some candidates with lower vote counts to win. Previous district boundaries were redrawn, resulting in 15 larger districts, diluting sectarian dominance in any one district. The redistricting was nevertheless not enough to break up the geographic dominance of some parties. But these provisions were new to the voters and the complexity might have contributed to the lower turnout.

The well-established political parties that have high party discipline, like Hizballah, Amal, LF and FPM, seemed to fare better than the Future Movement against new alliances and independents. Despite bringing a few new faces into a moribund confessional system, the final tallies showed the ability of some of the big parties to adjust to the new system by forming new alliances and agreeing to shared lists. The big parties went as far as to make contradictory alliances in order to defeat independent competitors. Other big parties such as Hizballah were able to help out allies by asking their constituents to choose a preferential candidate allied with the party that needed an extra boost. The Future Movement seemed to spread itself thin, as it tried to compete across all districts, and many analysts had predicted it would fare much worse under the new law. The party faced stiffer competition from well-established Sunni politicians like Najib Mikati in the north, Osama Saad in the South, Abdel Rahim Mourad in Bekaa and Fouad Makhzoumi in Beirut—who all had a guaranteed base of support assuring them success under the new proportional law.

Critical Conclusions

There are four critical conclusions to be drawn from these elections.

The first and most significant is the consolidation of the “resistance front” led by Hizballah and the Amal movement, which swept all Shi‘i seats except for one in the confessionally divided parliament. The results reflected a broad popular consensus by the Shi‘i community around Hizballah’s political program. This was not a surprise but that type of consensus was absent in other religious communities. But probably just as important for Hizballah was the election of so-called pro-resistance Sunni and independent allies to the new parliament, thus significantly increasing the size of their political bloc. The leader of Hizballah, Hasan Nasrallah, wanted to use this parliamentary election as a referendum on the party’s role as the resistance party, and the approval by the Shi‘i constituency was almost unanimous. This electoral consent is critical in dealing with any potential future military flare-up between the party and Israel. The next hurdle for Hizballah is maintaining the defense formula of “the army, the people and the resistance” in the ministerial statement to be drafted by the new government. This statement is a critical document that outlines major government policy in the upcoming term. All the parties within the government have to reach a consensus on all points of the statement.

The second most critical result of the election is Prime Minister Hariri’s Future Movement’s loss of 11 parliamentary seats. The Future Movement can no longer be considered the sole representative of the Sunni community. Former Prime Minister Mikati and Faisal Karami in the north, along with other candidates, whittled away at the Hariri dominance in the Sunni community. It seemed that much of the vote against Hariri was an expression of disappointment in his failure as prime minister to deliver on critical socioeconomic issues. His campaign was light on policy details and heavy on political rhetoric. The losses of firebrand Sunni candidates like Ashraf Rifi suggest that sectarian discourse and rhetoric did not have currency within the Sunni community. Many people, especially in the north, are concerned about bread-and-butter issues like local projects, jobs, hospitals and real opportunities to improve their lives. When it came to voting, these issues took precedence over the overly sectarian campaign of the Future Movement.

The third critical conclusion of the election is a recalibration of Christian representation, with the Lebanese Forces significantly increasing its share to 14 parliamentarians. This will enable the party to compete with the FPM, which won the biggest number of seats in the last parliament. The LF focused on the Christian base with less shared lists and were able to pick off Christian seats from the FPM’s traditional base. On the other hand, the FPM aligned with many different parties—from Hizballah to the Future Movement—depending on the district. As a result of this strategy, it may have lost some Christian votes. It is too early to say, but the support that the LF received might signal a shift in attitudes within the Christian community toward more narrow communal concerns and power. Some of that lost power was constitutional and was taken away in the Ta’if agreement after the end of the civil war. Other concerns have to do with the Christians maintaining their numbers in an Arab region that has seen its Christian population rapidly declining as a result of war, lack of opportunity, discrimination and oppression.

The fourth critical conclusion of the election is the failure of civil society groups to have any real representation in the new parliament. The alliance of civil society and independent candidates that ran under the name of Kulluna Watani (All for the Nation) had 66 candidates in nine districts. The only candidate elected from these lists was Paula Yacoubian, a well-recognized reporter for the Future TV channel who is more of a celebrity than a grassroots activist. Yacoubian is also one of only six women elected to the 128 member parliament. Another woman candidate and prominent feminist, Joumana Haddad, was announced a winner in her district on the night of the election, only to find out the next day that she was edged out by another candidate. The change in results was suspicious and took out another potential woman representative in parliament. Lebanon ranks 184 out of 193 nations in the percentage of women in Parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. [1] Despite a record 86 women running in the elections, the gender imbalance will likely remain intractable in Lebanon unless a quota system is imposed.

The civil society parliamentary lists were inspired by recent civil society campaigns like Beirut Madinati and the You Stink movement. Beirut Madinati was a campaign by activists and academics that challenged the old guard in municipal politics. Despite losing the municipal elections in 2016, the campaign showed that change might be possible with good clean candidates, new ideas and organization. The You Stink movement was a grassroots campaign that brought out thousands into the streets to demand that the government deal with the trash and waste management crisis. Like the groups that inspired them, the civil society lists running for Parliament seemed to suffer from internal bickering, personality conflicts, division and disorganization. More importantly, they lacked the financial resources and the critical organic connection to communities that the traditional parties have had years to establish.

Positive Shock

The proportional law established new rules of the game. It is possible that civil society groups learned some hard lessons and will adjust next time with greater unity, better organization and more resources to take on the big parties. The opportunities for independent politicians will be even greater four years from now if corruption and poor governance continue. It is unlikely that the elections, as an outcome of the proportional law, will bring badly needed social justice, jobs, transparency, better government services and stability that the Lebanese were hoping for. But one positive dynamic is that the March 8 and March 14 political blocs have dissipated and new alliances are already shaping up. Instead of two large polemical blocs, there will be smaller parties and a few independents swinging from one camp to another, depending on the issue. This is a far cry from the air-tight alliances that existed previously and which made some legislation impossible.

In his post-election speech, President Michel Aoun ambitiously suggested that he would start a national dialogue on two thorny issues. The first is a national defense strategy that would theoretically put Hizballah’s weapons under the command of the state. The second is a national dialogue on implementing the Ta’if accords, which would progressively dissemble the confessional system. But these are very complex and difficult issues to resolve right now. The regional situation is quite unsettled, which means that groups like Hizballah are not going to take any chances on the issue of weapons, especially when Israel is bombing Syria on a weekly basis and Donald Trump is in the White House.

Deal Breakers

Before a new government even officially forms, there will be arduous negotiations over critical ministerial appointments and the required ministerial statement. Divvying up the ministries and more importantly agreeing on who gets the “sovereign” portfolios (Foreign Affairs, Finance, Interior and Defense) will not be easy this time around. There are more parties but the same number of ministries. Failing to achieve consensus on these critical issues could prevent the formation of the new government. In the past, as a result of political gridlock, Lebanon has had “caretaker governments” with limited authority for months and even years. The most recent was a presidential vacuum from April 23, 2014 until October 31, 2016, when consensus was finally reached that Aoun should become president.

Other looming threats could sidetrack any new government, including a regional military confrontation. Any enlargement of war emanating from Syria could drag Lebanon into it, as could a US war on Iran, which has become even more likely with Trump’s recent withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and the looming possibility of a military escalation between Iran and Israel.

Another possible deal breaker that would reshuffle the government’s priorities is a significant socio-economic crisis. Lebanon has the third highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world but has recently gambled on more loans to improve its economy. Earlier this year, the European Union sponsored the Economic Conference for Development through Reforms with the Private Sector (CEDRE) in Paris to support Lebanon with development and infrastructure projects. Lebanon was promised over $10 billion in loans and grants to fix its infrastructure and implement reforms. But this is not the first time Lebanon has received this type of investment from the international community. There were the Paris I, Paris II and Paris III conferences (2001, 2002, 2007), which only brought more debt. There is no guarantee that these billions will not be pilfered by corrupt politicians like the other billions of dollars Lebanon has received over the years. The debt burden and poor economic performance might finally catch up to Lebanon in the form of an economic meltdown. To make things worse, Lebanon ranks 143 out of 180 in Transparency International’s corruption index, [2] making it one of the most corrupt countries in the world. An economic crisis that hits the currency and the banking sector can be devastating for a country already burdened with over a million Syrian refugees and regional instability.

The new election law in Lebanon certainly had the promise of renewal, reform and change. In the best-case scenario after the elections, the Lebanese can only hope to get piecemeal reforms and possibly incremental improvement in government services. The big promises made by the politicians are well out of reach. Some realistic reforms and outcomes might include the implementation of an e-governance system to cut back on corruption, more consistent electricity provision, a few new roads, a new port in the north, faster Internet and some other minor improvements from internationally funded projects.

A Lebanese scholar once defined Lebanon as the most successful “failed state.” If this complex small country is able to weather the current regional tsunami and make these small changes, there has never been a time when that has been truer.

 


Endnotes

[1] “Women in National Parliaments,” Inter-Parliamentary Union, May 1, 2018.

[2] “Lebanon,” Transparency International. Accessed June 13, 2018.

How to cite this article:

Rayan El-Amine "The Lebanese Elections and Their Consequences," Middle East Report Online, June 14, 2018.
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