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Elections in Lebanon: It’s Only the Beginning

Elections in Lebanon: It’s Only the Beginning
 Joseph Bahout
Non-resident scholar at Carnegie Endowment in Washington DC

The Lebanese parliamentary elections, which took place on 6 May 2018, were very telling of the country’s current political state, torn between internal divides, regional issues and challenges of all sorts. How should the results of this election be interpreted? Joseph Bahout, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington DC, specialist of the Middle East, explains the consequences of this election - the first held since 2009.

What lessons can be learned from this election?

If many international commentators observe that the vote was dismissed by the Lebanese people, the reality is far more nuanced. The voter turnout (49.2%) is only 5% lower than the one registered in the last general election, held in 2009. In fact, the new electoral law defining proportional representation has not been understood by the general public and has failed to mobilize voters, despite it being its main goal. The low turnout can also be explained by the fact that the strong political divide between the two main coalitions - the March 8 and March 14 Alliances  - is progressively fading away. The big issues that had until now gathered the Lebanese people are thus slowly being diluted.

The power balances within the Lebanese Parliament following the election can be summarized as follows:

  • Within the Change and Reform group, close to President Michel Aoun, the number of Members of Parliament has increased and reached 29 (out of 128 MPs in total), if we take into account MPs affiliated to the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). This growing figure undeniably strengthens the President’s power. Among new affiliated MPs, many are businessmen representing an economic class that supports the power in place. Nevertheless, despite this apparent victory, the FPM can hardly hide its loss of influence in its traditional electoral strongholds, where it must now share its power with the Lebanese Forces.
  • In the meantime, Hezbollah remains unspoiled by this election and keeps its 13 seats. On the other hand, the shift towards a proportional representation system strengthens the organization’s position in a Parliament where political forces are further dispersed. Add to that the results of Hezbollah, of Shia of the Amal Movement (16 MPs), of Christians of President Michel Aoun’s FPM and of the Progressive Socialist Party (9 MPs), and the coalition would win a majority with 67 seats in Parliament.
  • The Lebanese Forces have doubled the number of their MPs, which went from 7 to 14 (even 17, if we take into account the affiliates of the Phalanges). With some of these victories in areas where this party’s Christians had never had representatives before, it is a real setback for President Aoun, who is losing ground amongst his Christian electorate. This new force will certainly weigh in the future power balances, especially from the Saudi point of view.
  • How has Prime Minister Saad Hariri performed? Pre-election predictions proved to be well-founded. The Future Movement indeed lost a third of its MPs, especially in its traditional Sunni strongholds (including in Tripoli, where it is significantly surpassed by Nagib Mikati, and Beirut). It now has 21 MPs, some of whom are not entirely convinced by their Prime Minister. Hariri thus loses the monopoly of the Sunni representation and is challenged by new figures, which may complexify his return to power.
  • Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party is doing some damage control and will continue to share the Druze electorate with his competitor, Emir Talal Arslan. By keeping 9 MPs, the party preserves its role of “pendulum” within Parliament.
  • The peculiarity of this ballot undeniably lies in the rather triumphal return of pro-Syrian figures, who had almost disappeared in 2005. This new phenomenon leaves open the possibility for the formation of a pro-Bashar group. It is the result of the Syrian power’s strategy, which aims to return to the front of the Lebanese political scene via a political force of its own. All elected officials coming from Bekaa Valley, which is subject to Syrian influence, are all the more visible since the Syrian power’s recent military victories.
  • Finally, civil society, despite what the passionate comments anticipated, did very poorly, with the election of a single MP in Beirut, Paula Yacoubian, who is more of a media than of a political figure.

What upcoming  power balances should we expect to see on the Lebanese political scene? 

In the hours following the elections, Hezbollah attracted everyone’s attention by organizing a parade of hundreds of men riding motorbikes and waving the Hezbollah and Amal Movement flags in several neighborhoods of Beirut, where mostly Christians live. This demonstration of strength was far from innocent and conveyed several messages: 

  • The first message was addressed to President Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah. If he asserted that his mandate would start only once he acquired a majority, Hezbollah wishes to remind everyone that he largely relies on his allies.
  • The second message was addressed to Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Now that he is politically weakened, Hezbollah shows him that his return to government will not be easy. Indeed, he will be held hostage by Hezbollah because of the lack of support from his own group, while on his right, the Lebanese Forces group is Saudi policy’s favorite tool. Saad Hariri will have to convince people that he is indeed the guarantor of the country’s stability in order to remain head of state. By setting up an alliance with the President, he tries to reduce Hezbollah’s strength, yet runs the risk of losing the support of the traditional Saudi party and to erode his popularity amongst the Sunni community. 
  • The last message is preventive, and is aimed at the rising Christian forces: their electoral success does not change the reality on the ground.  

Hariri is expected to negotiate his return as head of the government despite a diminished majority, as the latter might not be supported by the Lebanese Forces. The formation of a government seems complicated, with the imposition of figures from the Syrian group, with which Hariri does not wish to work. The outline of a new political landscape opposes a new sovereignist group to the March 8 Alliance, and is underlied by an important stake, which everyone has in mind: the next presidential election in 2022. 

What should we expect from the coming years? 

An economic challenge

The end of the electoral period will be the occasion for the country to focus on the main challenge it faces: the disastrous economic situation. Lebanon is indeed on the verge of bankruptcy and must implement the reforms it committed to lead, in return for a financial aid from the international community. With a 40% unemployment rate in a country welcoming more and than half a million of Syrian refugees, the decay of public services, the corruption of the political and administrative class, and the pressure from the bank sector keep increasing, especially as experts are predicting bankruptcy. This explains why, last April, France organized an international conference in support to Lebanon, gathering the representatives of many Arab and European countries from regional and international financial institutions (the “CEDRE” conference supporting Lebanon). Yet these promises of funding will be extremely conditioned to the reforms Lebanon needs to implement.  

The Hezbollah issue in the Lebanese society and in the context of regional tensions 

The aim is to avoid a new conflict that has the potential to provoke a real disaster in a country already under pressure. The President, who wishes to find an internal balance, could be led to defend the idea that Hezbollah’s armament should be legalized. If Hezbollah’s disarmament is not an option, the goal here would be to register its forces within the official military system. This issue should be the main point to the National Dialogue agenda. The latter will probably be set under the aegis of Michel Aoun, and Hezbollah will benefit from letting the political class “discuss” this question, as this will be a way to trivialize it. 

The stakes underlying the 2022 elections 

Political forces within the Parliament will quickly end up opposing each other on the next presidential election. If the President’s son-in-law strives to succeed him, we can observe an escalation of the power of the Lebanese Forces and of the Syrian group, the latter aiming to structure themselves around Soleimane Frangié. Lebanese politics might then mostly gravitate around this election, even though the country faces a major economic crisis and a regional war, which seems to be imminent. 

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