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National cynicism and foreign outcry overshadow Lebanese elections

The lebanese flag floating over the palace of Beiteddine.

Having postponed elections twice, Lebanon now has a new parliament after nine years. The results of the elections raise questions about the internal and external issues that threaten Lebanon’s stability and prosperity.  

Lebanon’s convoluted political alliances

News headlines announced the victory of Hezbollah in the Lebanese elections. They warned of Iran’s enhanced presence in the country since its Lebanese proxy had won big. Although the winners were not the West’s preferred parties, the extent of Hezbollah’s win was exaggerated by foreign media.

These claims are based on the 2009 election groupings which pitted the March 14 and the March 8 coalitions against one another. March 14 was a Western, especially U.S.-backed, grouping of parties, while March 8 was backed by Iran and included Hezbollah. In the previous elections, March 14 took a majority of seats in parliament which alleviated Western fears of Iranian interference. However, these groupings are no longer part of the Lebanese political scene today and the past couple of years marked a shift in political alliances. Civil war enemies and parties that belonged to the two coalitions banded together to elect President Michel Aoun in 2016.

In the May elections Hezbollah won 13 of 128 seats, one more than in 2009, but the group of parties that used to belong to the March 8 coalition took a majority in parliament this time around. Notably, the biggest “win” for the Shia party was taking away Sunni seats from its rival, PM Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, which lost almost a third of its seats in parliament. Its losses in Beirut especially to pro-Hezbollah Sunni candidates, fueled the victorious calls of the Hezbollah leadership.

The new electoral law introduced proportional representation, which prompted parties to form alliances. Some were along the lines of the March 8 and March 14 divide, but there were new alignments that mirrored alliances that had formed in recent years, and some that were purely tactical in certain regions. One such alliance is the Free Patriotic Movement’s alliance with the Future Movement in support of PM Saad Hariri, which manifested itself in electoral lists in some constituencies. However, FPM is considered to be an ally of Hezbollah’s and their 22 seats in parliament count towards the latter “winning more than half the seats.” Therefore, these elections have shown how convoluted political alliances can be in Lebanon and that it is too simplistic to draw lines between party groupings in the same manner as in 2009.

The aftermath of the elections

Painting the elections as a Hezbollah victory has deep repercussions on the image of Lebanon abroad. It feeds into a campaign of fear mongering regarding Iran’s geopolitical influence. This affects tensions in the region, especially with Israel. In fact, it created an opening for Israel’s education minister to announce that Lebanon was equivalent to Hezbollah, which justifies its policy to hold the entire country responsible for Hezbollah’s actions. In the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, the latter targeted Hezbollah strongholds and did not focus on other Lebanese regions. Thus, these words signal the willingness of Israel to target the entire country indiscriminately in case of renewed conflict.

These elections, in addition to inflaming foreign public opinion, brought to the surface Lebanon’s glaring problems. The results exhibited the strength of patronage networks and nepotism in the country. The fair nature of the voting process was questionable at best since the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections recorded more than 7,000 violations.  Despite the presence of alternatives this time around, very few changes were made to the standing of deeply-rooted parties and families in parliament.

Various civil society-backed individuals and new parties joined together to form electoral lists under the name Koullouna Watani, in addition, independent candidates banded with more established parties to join lists. However, only one Koullouna Watani candidate made it through, while another who was announced as winner had her seat revoked, which caused activist protests in Beirut. Voter turnout was about 49 percent with cynicism running through the community about the possibility of change, which materialized as a self-fulfilling prophecy due to the lack of support for new faces that set themselves apart from established parties.

The repercussions of minimal change

The dangers of the static nature of politicians’ presence in Lebanon are the depth of corruption and patronage that are bleeding the country dry. Debt is already at a staggering $90 billion, or 150% of GDP, while basic infrastructure is suffering. To promote macroeconomic stability, a recent IMF mission statement stressed the importance of stabilizing debt, managing public investment, and enhancing the anti-corruption regulatory framework.

This election had the potential to add some new groupings to a parliament that is already ten years old, but aside from some shuffling and seat exchanges between parties, nothing much has changed. Furthermore, Nabih Berri got re-elected as Speaker of Parliament, a position he has held since 1992, and Saad Hariri returned as PM for a third term and is tasked with forming a new government. Despite the hopes that these elections might shake up the Lebanese political scene, the established political elite have further strengthened their grip over the country.

The coming government must address the dire economic situation, especially since Lebanon is looking at a new era with the discovery of oil and gas near its shore. In February, the government made a deal with an international consortium made up of French Total, Russian Novatek, and Italian Eni to start exploratory offshore drilling. This new industry has the potential to boost the Lebanese economy and send it into a path of faster development.

Nonetheless, this newfound wealth of natural resources comes with its own complications. Israel has escalated its threats amid the talks leading to the contract claiming that the drilling would be in areas owned by the state. But despite the provocations, the deal went through. It will be interesting to see whether the wealth will trickle down to the popular level through projects for sustainable economic growth, or whether it will get tangled up in the nets of power struggles and patronage networks.

 

This article first ran on Global Risk Insights and was written by Myriam Maalouf.