Elections have always been a stress test for Hezbollah and the upcoming May 15th elections are no exception. The ongoing socio-economic crisis and widespread political disenchantment with the whole sectarian system in Lebanon will make these elections particularly challenging for Hezbollah. More specifically, this vote threatens the continued existence of the coalition that allows Hezbollah to control the parliamentary majority. What is in question is also the role of Hezbollah as the kingmaker of the sectarian system – a system that has generated political protection for its military operations within and without Lebanon. The slogan that Hezbollah has used as the hallmark of its electoral campaign, ‘we remain to protect and build,’ (baqun nahmy w nabny) shows Hezbollah’s desire to safeguard its power. But it also betrays insecurity, especially as the political system, which it helps maintain, has lost its legitimacy.
Why are elections important for Hezbollah?
Hezbollah has embraced formal politics to legitimise and protect its informal activities – especially its military operations outside the political system. Without the protection provided by Lebanese institutions, Hezbollah would be far more exposed to the fury of the global campaign of sanctions, spearheaded by the United States. The national consensus around the formula ‘the army, the people and the resistance’ (al-jaysh, al-sha’ab, al-muqawama) recognises Hezbollah as an integral part of the Lebanese state and society. It is a formal recognition of ‘the resistance’ that allows Hezbollah to deploy the Lebanese state to navigate a hostile external world, and to establish a synergy between its institutional and extra-institutional activities in the country – the primary source of its power.
Therefore, Hezbollah has a vested interest in the perpetuation of the current sectarian system, despite its earlier misgivings. Over the last three decades, Hezbollah has learned to manipulate, and eventually dominate, the sectarian system that was built to cause its marginalisation. However, there are limits to what Hezbollah can do with it. The moral standing of Hezbollah and its reputation for honesty and efficiency in conducting public affairs collides with the bankrupted sectarian system, with which it is now associated. This tension has become sharper with the so-called ‘October revolution’ of 2019, the birth of a spontaneous, cross-sectarian popular movement across the whole country that openly exposed the brutality and corruption of the sectarian system and calls for its termination. The worsening financial and economic situation, including the decay of public services and infrastructure, devaluation of the Lebanese lira, skyrocketing inflation, and unemployment rate, not to mention the 2020 explosion of the Beirut port, have all strengthened this movement over the last three years.
Strengths and weaknesses of Hezbollah
The popular movement did not spare Hezbollah. Protests took place even in its stronghold, including in in the South and the Beqaa. Shi’a constituents took to the streets to openly criticise Hezbollah and its Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, for doing too little to counter the deterioration of living conditions. Yet, Hezbollah was quick and effective in responding to these grievances. It continued to pay salaries and pensions, mainly in dollars, when foreign currencies were hard to find in the country. It expanded its charitable activities, also providing aid and loans to those in need through the al-Qard al-Hassan association. It opened a chain of supermarkets that offer products at a subsidized price and counter inflation. It imported diesel from Iran when the country was paralysed by fuel shortages.
These measures have proved successful in regaining support in its traditional Shi’a constituency. Hezbollah once again displayed the autonomy, outreach, and efficiency of its networks, at a time when the Lebanese state was failing to perform even its most basic duties. This also goes to show that Hezbollah needs Iranian financial support (which the US estimates at 700$ million per year) to exert its autonomy from the Lebanese state.
However, if Hezbollah can partially alleviate the dire impact of the present financial and economic crisis, it cannot adjust Lebanon’s broken capitalist system that created this situation in the first place. This is simply because Hezbollah operates largely outside of official economic and financial networks. Its economy runs parallel to the state economy. This is how the Party detours Western sanctions. But this is also the result of an informal entente between Hezbollah and its Lebanese rivals where the former does not interfere in national economic and financial matters, treating them as the domain réservé of pro-Western elites, in return for the latter’s acquiescence to its private military activities. As the Party always imagined Lebanon’s economic-financial system as a no-go area, it never built the knowledge to encroach on it.
Thus, while Lebanon is renegotiating its debt with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Hezbollah has no real say – nor clear understanding – of the whole process. Hassan Nasrallah has more than once affirmed that “Hezbollah is not against the IMF”. Yet, such vagueness betrays a poor appreciation of what the IMF stands for, and of the potential consequences of its encroachment on Lebanon’s finances. The IMF is mainly an intermediary of Western imperialism – an institution that, since the 1970s, Western powers have used to reshape the countries of the Global South, both economically and politically. Based on these records, the restructuring of Lebanon’s debt is likely to produce a further incorporation of the country within the Western sphere of influence. Incidentally, potential donors – including the US, France, and the Gulf States – have put the IMF-Lebanon deal and the implementation of key economic reforms as a precondition for Lebanon to receive other forms of international aid. It is hard to imagine how this could not add more pressure on Hezbollah.
The challenges in the upcoming elections
International tensions have entered the current electoral campaign. On the one hand, the United States and Saudi Arabia are pushing for a change of the status quo, which means breaking the current parliamentary majority, composed of Hezbollah, the other Shi’a party Amal, and the Christian ‘Free Patriotic Movement’ (FPM). On the other hand, Hezbollah has accused the United States and the Gulf of plotting to defer the vote, in an attempt of gaining time to help their Lebanese protégés expand their popular support.
Beyond the dialectic, there are serious challenges Hezbollah faces in these elections. First, its traditional rivals are more aggressive than ever. Despite the weakness of its main opponent, the Sunni camp – ensued from the decision of its leader, Sa’ad Hariri, to withdraw from politics – the Christian party ‘Lebanese Forces’ (LF) is now directly contesting Hezbollah. It is doing so, by calling out its ‘illegal weapons,’ directly borrowing from the language of Western states. Apart from being a long-standing opponent of Hezbollah’s weapons and role in Lebanon and the region, the leader of the LF Samir Geagea is determined to deprive Hezbollah of its Christian ally, the FPM, led by the President of Lebanon Michel Aoun. This is vital because Hezbollah uses the alliance with the FPM to appeal beyond sectarian lines. It is also crucial to maintain seats in key districts, such as Baalbek-Hermel, where the LF is conducting a stiff campaign to gain Christian seats, in alignment with Shi’a independent candidates opposing Hezbollah. What compounds the problems for Hezbollah is that these will be the first elections in which the Lebanese diaspora is expected to swing the results, most likely in favour of anti-Hezbollah candidates.
Another key challenge to Hezbollah in these elections comes from anti-system lists. Although not all of them see the demilitarisation of Hezbollah as a key priority for Lebanon, none of them is a likely new partner for the Shi’a party. Still, these actors are dived amongst themselves and are not expected to shake up the traditional power-structure in a significant way – at least not in these elections. However, they have managed to present a unified list in the South III district (Nabatiyé, Bint Jbeil et Marjeyoun-Hasbaya), a symbolic stronghold of Shi’a electoral support. To be sure, the Shi’a tandem Hezbollah-Amal is solid and resilient here. But the temptation to vote for non-traditional candidates in the current state of exceptional crisis and disillusion may trigger unpredictable defections. Hezbollah is wary of this possibility. This perhaps explains why, in recent days, it has resorted to intimidation tactics and pressure of all sorts to avert radical changes to the status quo.
Yet, beyond the question of what majority will come out of these elections, there are much bigger, structural challenges that Hezbollah – not unlike other members of the traditional elite – will be forced to face sooner or later. The sectarian system is a naked emperor, a savage capitalist elite that has devoured the wellbeing of the Lebanese people. For all the efforts the traditional elite (and their international patrons) are making to salvage it, the popular quest for a radical change is unlikely to vanish soon. The 2022 elections are unlikely to celebrate the emergence of a new post-sectarian elite but can compound a serious step in that direction. Hezbollah is therefore stuck between a dying sectarian system it has never fully embraced and some possible alternatives that have yet to appear. The real question for Hezbollah now, is how it will navigate this limbo: how it will deal with the longstanding pressure coming from its old sectarian rivals and the new pressure coming from a post-sectarian society.
 ‘The resistance’ (al-muqawama) is the also the name of Hezbollah’s armed apparatus.
 I have developed this argument in M. Calculli, Come uno Stato. Hizbullah e la mimesi strategica, Vita&Pensiero, Milano 2018 and M.Calculli, ‘Between the battlefield and the ballotbox: armed political parties in the Middle East’ in F. Cavatorta, L. Storm, V. Resta, Routledge Handbook on Political Parties in the Middle East and North Africa, Routledge, London 2020: 356-368.
 See Aurelie Daher, Hezbollah. Mobilisation and Power, Oxfrord: Hurst 2019, p. 287.
 Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations, London, Verso Book 2013.