In Lebanon’s Elections, More of the Same is Mostly Good News
In Lebanon’s Elections, More of the Same is Mostly Good News
Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town
Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Government election officials carry a ballot box into polling stations ahead of the country's May 6 parliamentary election, in Beirut, Lebanon, on 5 May 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

In Lebanon’s Elections, More of the Same is Mostly Good News

Lebanon’s elections yielded few surprises, says Crisis Group’s Lebanon, Syria and Iraq Project Director Heiko Wimmen in this Q&A. Hizbollah is slightly stronger and its main rival weaker. But the polls do represent a return to normalcy.

Who won and who lost in the Lebanese elections?

The 6 May elections readjusted the political balance but brought no fundamental change. As before, no government can be formed without Hizbollah. To be effective in government the Shiite Islamist movement, as always, will have to reach out to partners that oppose much of its agenda. Hizbollah is not about to take formal control of the next government, however, because that move would put Lebanon at risk of losing crucial foreign support or even becoming a pariah state.

The main feature of the polls was not the Shiite movement’s triumph but significant losses for Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, which saw its parliamentary bloc dwindle by a third to twenty seats of the 128-seat parliament. That result, however, was expected: unlike in the last polls in 2009, Hariri was unable to unite Sunnis behind him, and faced stiff competition in areas he had previously won with ease. He suffered further disadvantages: a lack of campaign cash and a new electoral law that made it more difficult to dominate communally mixed districts.

Hizbollah and its partner Amal once again monopolised the Shiite vote to win 28 seats, and they can count on the support of about a dozen MPs from smaller parties. That success means they were able to improve their own parliamentary representation by two seats (both won by Amal), and to get a few more of their allies elected. But it does not amount to a sweeping victory.

The main feature of the polls was not the Shiite movement’s triumph but significant losses for Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement.

The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Christian party led by President Michel Aoun, has been allied to Hizbollah for more than a decade. It garnered just below twenty seats, as it did in 2009, while helping to elect six or seven formally independent MPs through local electoral alliances, not all of which will necessarily endure long beyond election day.

As for opponents of Hizbollah other than Hariri, the Christian Lebanese Forces emerged as the surprise winner, jumping from eight to fifteen MPs, while the Phalange (another Christian movement) and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party both shrank by two seats, from five to three and eleven to nine MPs, respectively.

So the new parliament will likely look not too different from the old.

Who will comprise the next Lebanese government?

The new government will likely resemble the old as well. Hariri lacks the numbers to form a government without Hizbollah’s support. For its part, Hizbollah has expressed its intention to cooperate with Hariri, and has every reason to do so: while the prime minister lost ground, he still heads one of the strongest blocs in parliament, and remains the protagonist of the Sunni community, from which the new prime minister has to be recruited under the Lebanese power-sharing formula.

To suggest, as news reports have done, that Hizbollah and its allies have won a majority in the new Lebanese parliament and will now run Lebanon by themselves wrongly assumes that these “allies” amount to a coherent parliamentary bloc. Who exactly from among the gaggle of smaller parties would enter such a pro-Hizbollah bloc is not clear, but the total is unlikely to amount to many more than 40 MPs. To get anywhere near a majority, Hizbollah’s long-time Christian ally, the FPM of President Aoun, would also have to join; yet no love is lost between Aoun and Amal, whose supporters nearly came to blows during the campaign. Even if the FPM would ultimately come on board, it is simply impossible to rule Lebanon with a slim majority comprising 67 or even 70 of the 128 seats. Previous attempts to do so have led to gridlock and conflict.

This is not just a matter of constitutional conventions, but of very recent experience: for the better part of the past decade and a half, Lebanon was teetering on the brink of serious conflict, or even a new civil war, between allies of Saudi Arabia (supported vehemently, at least initially, by the U.S.), and partisans of Iran and Syria. Just over ten years ago, on 7 May 2008, the protagonists in this struggle – the Future Movement and Hizbollah – faced off in bloody street battles in the heart of the capital, Beirut. When, by 2012, the popular uprising in neighbouring Syria morphed into armed conflict and then became a regional proxy war, the political system broke down, and the country appeared to be heading straight for the abyss.

Beirut, Lebanon, in November 2017. CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

Instead, in 2016, Hariri reached an understanding with Hizbollah and some of its key allies, reportedly with the blessing of the U.S. and France. A bizarre episode occurred in November 2017, when the prime minister, on a visit to Riyadh as the regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran was heating up, resigned under apparent duress, citing Hizbollah’s involvement in regional conflict and threats to his life. But Hariri withdrew his resignation the next month after he had returned to Beirut, and since then Lebanon’s unlikely political cohabitation has worked relatively well for everybody.

More important still, forming a government where Hizbollah is too obviously in the driver’s seat would expose Lebanon to external pressure. The party is considered a terrorist organisation by the U.S., the UK and the Gulf states. Already, hardliners in Israel are exploiting the election results to denounce Lebanon as a “Hizbollah” state – an ominous sign, as risks of an Israeli confrontation with Iran and Hizbollah grow.

How many Lebanese voted and why?

The turnout on 6 May was less than what many had hoped for, even though Lebanese had been waiting a long time for elections (polls were due in 2013, but sharp polarisation between rival camps made holding them impossible). Roughly 50 per cent of an electorate of 3.7 million, among them 800,000 first-timers, made it to the polls.

In some ways, this rather lacklustre response is actually a return to normalcy. Despite a rhetorical escalation between Hizbollah and the Future Movement during the campaign’s last phase, and unlike the last round in 2009, there was little to suggest to voters that these polls were of existential importance for the future of the country or the survival of their communities.

The impulse to change leadership seemed lacking.

Some thought the electorate would punish the government for its failures: waste collection, sewage disposal and electricity supply remain woefully inadequate, public health and education are in a shambles, the economy is sluggish and public debt is spiralling out of control. Yet the impulse to change leadership seemed lacking. Those who turned out overwhelmingly re-elected incumbents, and in some cases, voted in the next generation of long-established political dynasties.

In Lebanon, this hardly surprises. Many people appear hooked on a form of identity politics centred on leaders who claim to embody the interest of this or that sectarian community and region. Perhaps even more people also know, often from personal experience, that their wellbeing – in terms of access to state services, jobs and public tenders or the ability to bend rules to their favour – depends on political leaders who have all but captured and divvied up state institutions, using them for patronage.

That said, and thanks to the new electoral law, which for the first time adopted proportional representation, the new parliament will also include at least one representative of those political and civil society activists who have made it their life mission to confront these elites and their way of ruling. It is a very small beginning, but a significant precedent all the same.

How should international actors react to the elections?

Lebanon sits on a major regional fault line rife with conflict trigger points and devoid of diplomacy. Tensions between Iran and the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel are at a critical point after Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. A direct Israel-Iran/Hizbollah confrontation may be only a single mistake or misinterpreted signal away. Outside actors should deal cautiously with Lebanese affairs, encourage the parties to pursue a stability-oriented approach, and support the formation of a government not essentially different from the previous one.

Yet there is one sector where “more of the same” would not serve stability, but rather court social and economic disaster: the governments that pledged $11 billion at the April 2018 donor conference in Paris should insist that Lebanon finally get serious on reform and fighting corruption. As a Lebanese businessman said: “Previous donor conferences in 2002 and 2007 were called Paris II and Paris III – don’t you wonder why they called this one “CEDRE”? I tell you why: had they called it Paris IV, someone could have asked what happened to all the reform commitments Lebanon made at Paris III”.  

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