As thousands of Lebanese expats queued in long lines under simmering heat to vote for change, many commentators rushed to hail the turnout of expat voting as significant, a week prior to local votes. In reality, and while a small percentage of elected MPs might change from the 2018 Parliament, the traditional political parties will retain their seats, with one potential exception: the Free Patriotic Movement – party of the sitting President Michel Aoun and his U.S. sanctioned son-in-law. The expat vote on May 8, and the local one on May 15, might be seen as the beginning of a shift in Lebanese politics. However, a full economic and security collapse still looms after the elections, given the central bank’s inability to continuously sustain its monetary intervention.
Significant aspirations are being projected on the electoral process, occurring against the backdrop of one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions that rocked the heart of the country and one of the most severe global financial crises, as well as a political system seemingly running on fumes.
Election as an indispensable but non-resolutive way for Lebanon’s problems
With this in mind, common sense suggests that the upcoming elections will represent an indispensable route for the country to tackle its chronic maladies. Nations often head to the ballot box to recreate and legitimize power following major crises, but in Lebanon the situation is far more complex.
On one side, local polls indicate that all the sectarian political parties responsible for the disintegration of state and society, will maintain their representation, to varying degrees. However, opposition figures are expected to achieve limited breakthroughs. The Sunni-dominated Future Movement Party, run by Saad Hariri, will lose its representation in parliament due to Hariri’s personal decision to “suspend” his political career. This does not mean Hariri has been completely pushed out of the Lebanese political life, especially that he continues to garner support from the Sunni community he has led since 2005.
But despair radiates from people’s eyes across the country, and the social media frenzy surrounding the elections is run mostly by whatever’s left from the middle-class and populist elites spearheading the opposition’s electoral campaigns. The opposition lacks clout and strategy and is mostly banking on revenge voting as it positions itself to be a force of good taking on a force of evil that has ruled the country for decades. But to keep it short and simple, they cannot expel the ruling class.
The tragedy that hit Tripoli – Lebanon’s second largest urban center - two weeks ago, with Lebanese migrants dying off its coast while their boat capsized, reveals a dark reality: Lebanese would rather risk drowning on a small dinghy while fleeing to Europe than stay in their own country. Incidents like the Tripoli tragedy were previously reserved for Syrians fleeing their own regime’s war machine or citizens of different African countries attempting to escape famine. Now, it’s become a normal and recurrent scene in Lebanon.
Relatedly, the country is experiencing a major immigration wave with an upward trend year-on-year. Over 195,000 Lebanese citizens left the country since 2018, according to Information International citing official figures released by the Directorate of General Security. The Lebanese population hovers around 6.5 million, which includes about 1 million refugees, according to the United Nations.
The newfound reality has been in the making for years. Legendary levels of corruption, coupled with a paramilitary group, whose allegiance rests outside the borders and whose might has outgrown every state institution, resulted in this disaster. What was once a model to the Arab world, presenting high-level education, hospitalization, financial services and a cultural hub, has been flipped against most of its Arab neighbors as the country sinks deeper into the Iranian regime’s influence archipelago in the region. Today, the health sector is ironically on life support thanks to a World Bank loan, and educational institutions might avoid disintegration due to sizable donations by France, the United States and a few Arab countries. Nonetheless, the often-hailed Lebanese trademark of highly skilled labor force is being depleted by the second. Prospects for a swift recovery from the current reality are as bleak as the darkness overshadowing Lebanese households come nighttime, a result of state-failure in providing electricity.
Lebanon’s strategic reorientation, which began in 2005 following the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, was cemented in 2018 when Hezbollah finally emerged victorious from the parliamentary elections held at the time. Qassem Soleimani, one of the Iranian regime’s top generals and mastermind of its expansionist policy, announced Hezbollah’s victory at the time saying that it shifted from being a “resistance party to a resistance government.” But Hezbollah had assumed kingmaker status in the country in 2016, against the backdrop of the nuclear agreement between Tehran and Washington, when it succeeded in installing its ally Michel Aoun in the presidential palace by the “resistance’s rifle”, a declaration made by a Hezbollah MP in parliament and with prime ministers needing Hezbollah’s blessings to acquire candidacy and to form governments.
The October 2019 protests offered a glimpse of hope that rapidly eroded, first due to a counter-revolutionary movement spearheaded by Hezbollah’s black shirt squadrons, which decimated street protests while chanting “Shia... Shia”. Simultaneously, a global pandemic put the final nail in its coffin. The protest movement itself was riddled with fissures. Opposition figures, movements and parties are ideologically divided on almost all the existential questions. They had wildly different views on the economy, negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, the banking sector’s insolvency, the refugee crisis, foreign policy, Hezbollah’s status and peace in the region. Charting a path forward post-elections seems improbable, thus far, and a majority of the newfound groups will disintegrate.
The divide, while momentarily bridged in order to increase electoral seats, allows for heavy-handed manipulation by the veteran sectarian political elite in whatever parliament emerges post-elections. Meanwhile, Hezbollah will weather the results in similar fashion to what its allies in Iraq – the pro-Iran Coordination Framework – did, and will manage to maintain the political and financial privileges they acquired within the system over time.
What to expect from the election?
The balance of power, indeed, will likely remain skewed in Hezbollah’s favor, with local polls suggesting that the group and its allies will retain their parliamentary majority. However, that does not mean the elections will perpetuate the status quo. Indeed, there are likely to bring about three shifts in current sectarian power-sharing structures.
Firstly, Hariri’s suspension of his political career means that the Sunni constituency will be weakened within the structure. Precedents suggest that the weakening or disenfranchisement of a sectarian constituency, often led to the destabilization of the system with a probability of bloodshed in case the situation was protracted. But Hariri’s momentary resignation from politics has more to do with his patrons than him. The Saudi leadership, a longtime patron of the Hariri family, has given up on Saad as the latter “failed to stand up to Iran’s growing influence in Lebanon and cut deals with Hezbollah,” as per Saudi officials. The halt of Saudi support to Saad has weakened the Sunni leader, at a time when no heir has yet emerged.
Secondly, the disenfranchisement of the Sunnis is offering Hezbollah and the resurgent Syrian regime room for increasing their representation in Sunni MPs allied with them. While Hariri was in theory opposed to both, Sunni candidates that owe their allegiance to Bashar Assad or Hezbollah enjoy higher chances of making it to parliament this time around. With a larger Sunni bloc in parliament supporting Hezbollah, the group will be able to shield itself from growing local and international pressure for its role inside the country and elsewhere. Assad stands to benefit from this as well, simply because the MPs in favor of him will push further towards the normalization of ties between Lebanon and Syria.
Finally, the main battle being fought in this election is among the Christian constituency. Previously, the party of the sitting President, the Free Patriotic Movement, led the representation while it brokered a close alliance with Hezbollah to secure a ruling formula for the past decade. However, the FPM’s popularity was dealt a huge blow during the October 2019 uprising, given it enjoyed the largest representation in successive governments that failed to deliver on any promises. Today, rival Christian political parties, such as the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb, have a chance to eclipse the FPM and that, if achieved, will cause a major headache for Hezbollah’s ruling formula. The first test for the upcoming parliament, and the new dynamics within the country, are the presidential elections scheduled for end of the year. If and when that happens, a new era will be ushered in.
The region today is changing at record speed, due to many economic and political factors, while Lebanon continues to lose significance as it heads towards a “failed-state” status. Meanwhile, not much will change, in the grand scheme of things, simply because an election cannot solve Lebanon’s existential problem. Lebanon and the “concerned world” might be bracing for a hard crash post-elections.