The results of the Lebanese parliamentary elections on May 17 showed a decrease in the number of seats claimed by Hezbollah and its supporters, and increases favoring the non-partisan reformist candidates supporting the October 17 protests of 2019. These developments reflect the growing will for change towards a democratic civil society in Lebanon, but they do not come without significant challenges. This blog examines the results of the Lebanese parliamentary elections and discusses the political difficulties in the coming phase; arguing that, given the risks of a power vacuum, the best possibility of democratic states is to support reformist representatives.
In October 2019, thousands of Lebanese protested planned taxes on various goods such as gasoline and internet-based calls like WhatsApp. The protests spread into a nationwide condemnation of sectarian rule, failed economy, corruption, and a political system designed to protect the ruling class. “All of them means all of them,” chanted the youth in the streets of Lebanon, marking a break from the Taif Agreement (1990) which has ended the long civil war and shaped the sectarian division of Lebanese politics among a number of families of partisan and religious ruling elites. The protests failed in achieving their proclaimed goal of ending sectarian rule in 2019, and the country reached a security and economic bottom following the massive Beirut Port Explosion in August 2020. The economic crisis reached the limit of a failing banking system, and the currency lost 90% of its value ($1=30,000 Lebanese Lira in the black market, where it used to value 1,500 LL before 2019 ).
The Results of the Elections
The results of the parliamentary elections can be summarized in terms of three main shifts. First, Hezbollah and its allies lost the parliamentary majority. The Hezbollah-led parliamentary bloc ruled Lebanon since 2018 with 70 parliamentary seats out of 128, obtaining a majority that enabled forming a pro-Hezbollah government. Although the bloc mainly consists of Shiite groups (Hezbollah and Amal Movement), it also includes other players, the most important of which is the Free Patriotic Movement, the 2018-largest Christian representation in Lebanon. In May 2022 the Hezbollah bloc could only secure 62 seats of the 65 seats necessary to form a majority government.
The second shift that occurred is the rise of the Lebanese Forces political party as the largest representative of Lebanese Christians as a direct outcome of winning the representation of more Christian districts. The party has been leading the anti-Hezbollah and anti-Syria political camp since the withdrawal of the Future Movement, the traditional Sunni representation in Lebanon. The head of the Future Movement, Saad Al-Hariri, boycotted the elections, concentrating the anti-Hezbollah votes in the hands of the Christian leaders in the Lebanese Forces. The anti-Hezbollah bloc won 53 seats. Although their share has increased, they also cannot form a majority government.
The third shift is the representation of the reformist MPs who secured 13 seats,. Reformist MPs do not form a unified body, nor did they run on the same list as the electoral system is built on sectarian and regional distribution. However, reformist MPs belong neither to the families holding hegemony over the political scene in Lebanon since the civil war, nor are they affiliated to one of the traditional political parties. Instead, many of them explicitly adopt the demands of the October 17 protests.
The first complication the newly-elected MPs have to deal with is the formation of a government. According to the constitutional procedure, the president appoints the new prime minister in consultation with the parliament. The prime minister then selects the new cabinet.
Both traditional political blocs cannot form a majority government without allying with the reformist MPs. Despite the reformists’ deep disagreements with all political parties, the point of reference reformist MPs share with the other political blocs is their position against Hezbollah weaponry and the domination of the Syrian/Iranian “Axis of Resistance” regional order in Lebanon. Therefore, reformists are closer to forming a majority with the Lebanese Forces bloc, rather than with Hezbollah bloc. Knowing this, Hezbollah officials stated that they see a national consensus government as the only option, hoping to maintain their position in the government by keeping the reformists out of any government.
There is also a possibility that reformist MPs will refuse to join any majority government; or they may scatter their voices by not fully joining the anti-Hezbollah bloc, and thus, failing to enable either majority government.
With the absence of a clear majority, the difficulties surrounding integrating the reformist MPs in a majority government, and the uncertainty around the formation of a national consensus government, a power vacuum is threatening Lebanon. If the political actors fail to agree on a political formula the current government led by Najib Mikati will continue in caretaker mode, an outcome that will not solve the country’s economic problems. A majority government is possible but unlikely, particularly due to three major domestic challenges.
Domestic Challenges: Levels of Professionalization, Polarization, Radicalization
The breakthrough of reformist MPs shouldn’t be overlooked, however, the major challenges facing them should also be recognized. The near future holds at least three challenges for the domestic political scene in Lebanon, and the reformist MPs in particular.
The first is among reformist MPs themselves. While they share the protests’ ideals, they don’t necessarily have the political know-how. They have neither engaged in party-based politics nor cooperated with each other before. In practice, they barely form a united political front. If they were to become a decisive player between the two main blocs in the parliament, this organizational problem could be addressed.
The second challenge is the level of polarization among the political players currently represented in the parliament. The reformist MPs have openly accused almost all the ruling elites of sectarianism, nepotism, and corruption. On the other hand, politicians from both traditional blocs accused protestors of being guided by “foreign embassies.” The level of polarization should be moderated for the parliament to reach any kind of agreement or to be able to formulate policies.
Thirdly, radicalization into violence remains the main domestic challenge threatening change-oriented MPs and Lebanese politics in general. Boycott calls from the Future Movement and some activists had little impact, as low voter turnout is quite common in Lebanon . However, a deeper look at the regional distribution of participation might raise a red flag regarding a significantly low Christian and Sunni participation, and which might lead to a perception of marginalization among those communities. Looking at the example of Iraq, such marginalization processes are central for radicalization into political violence in the Middle East.
Regarding violence, Hezbollah has a high potential to further radicalize and militarize the domestic political scene. While Nasrallah, Hezbollah leader, accepted the results, the leader of the party’s parliamentary bloc, Mohamad Raad, threatened “civil war” if the other parties refuse a consensus government. There is historical evidence that the party resorts to violence when its security or military apparatus is politically attacked by the government. The best example, though not the latest, is the sectarian clashes of May 7 in 2008 in Beirut. The country is therefore not only heading to political uncertainty, but to a possible new wave of violence.
Conclusion: What Can Be Done?
First, democratic countries can help keep the political actors in Lebanon in check by making continued economic support conditional on reforms. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently announced an agreement with the current Lebanese government promising $3 billion in stabilization support over four years on the condition of enacting legislative and fiscal reforms. Similarly, earlier in 2021, a German delegation of private companies aiming to rebuild Beirut Port made it clear that no money would be spent in Lebanon before anti-corruption reforms. As the Lebanese state is no longer able to cover the cost of fuel and other subsidies due to the lack of foreign exchange such conditional external aid could have substantial leverage.
Second, European governments and civil societies active in Lebanon can support democracy in the country by addressing domestic challenges such as the levels of professionalization, polarization, and radicalization. This can be done through mediating and facilitating cooperation between different political actors, particularly reformist MPs. It is necessary for those wishing to support democracy in Lebanon to consider that reformist MPs do not only have significant a potential to influence governmental decision, but also the legitimate voice of the youth demanding change towards a democratic civic society. Therefore, European institutions and organizations active in Lebanon should intensify political cooperation with reformist MPs.
Even if reformist MPs’ current success does not influence the course of events in Lebanon, a power vacuum and the failure of political elites will slowly deprive traditional sectarian parties of more voices in the streets and in the parliament. For this structure not to collapse and fall into violence it is important that the voices of change receive recognition and political support from those who stand for democratic principles.