Amidst looming fears and apprehensions about the successful conduct of May 15 parliamentary election in Lebanon, people finally came out to vote to elect members for 128-members National Assembly. As the norm, the election took place after four years but in this span of four years, Lebanon has witnessed a chaotic political disorder coupled with one of the worst economic crises in recent history. During this period, people suffered the plight of COVID-19, horrendous deaths of hundreds of people in Beirut port explosion in 2020, constant electricity disruption and soaring inflation of day-to-day commodities, severe food crisis that was accentuated further by the Ukraine crisis and interventionist geopolitics pursued by the regional and global powers. One of the core drivers behind this election was to revive the depleted economy and prevent the nation from political disaster after GDP declined to US $ 20 billion in 2021 from US $ 55 billion in 2018 and the local currency lost its value by 90 %.[i]The election has resulted in a hung Parliament with the anti-Hezbollah forces gaining in strength.
In October 2019 the youth in large number launched their fresh version of Arab uprising against worsening day-to-day socio-economic condition and the power vacuum created by the absence of both President and PM for long time. Prime Minister (PM)-designate Saad Hariri resigned in June 2020 and Lebanon got new Prime Minister only in September 2021 in from of Najib Miqati. Similarly the post of President had remained vacant for almost two and a half years after President Aoun was nominated the President in 2016 but failed to receive the approval of the House.[ii] The appointment of new Prime Minister, Najib Miqati in September 2021 came year after the resignation of former PM Saad Hariri and he also failed to affect any major change on economic or political front and today 80% of people are designated by UN Economic and Social Council as poor and the country is estimated to have incurred a loss of US $ 69 billion in recent past.[iii]
Lebanon and its Electoral Process
Lebanon practices the confessional model of democracy since its independence in 1946 because of the presence of multiple religious denominations in the country. Under the confessional system, the posts of President, PM and Speaker of the house are reserved for Maronite Catholic Christian, Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim respectively.[iv] It is not only the executive posts which are divided among different religious groups but, likewise, the seats in the Assembly are also reserved in accordance with the proportion of the national population. The largest numbers of seats have been reserved for Maronite Christians (34) followed by Sunni sect (28) and Shiite sect (27).[v] Apart from these major religious denominations, 14 seats are reserved for Orthodox, 8 for Catholics, 5 for Armenians, 2 seats for Alawites and one seat for minority within the Christian is also reserved. The election for National Assembly takes place every four years and for the recent election, there were 718 nominations including 284 independent candidates.[vi] The country was divided into 15 electoral districts along with electoral lists of 103. The prominent parties in the fray were Hezbollah (Shiite), Amal (Shite) and Free Patriotic Movement (Christian) and all three had formed pre-election alliance. Apart from Free Patriotic Movement party, there was another Christian Party, Lebanese Force Party in addition to many smaller parties like Socialist Progressive Party of Druze leader Janbalat and other small political groups and independent candidates as well.
The most prominent and one of the oldest Sunni party, Future Movement, led by Saad Hariri had already declared that his party would not contest the election and that is apparently linked to past few years of geopolitics of the region in general and worsening ties between Saad Hariri and ruling regime of Saudi Arabia. It is worth recalling here that Saad Hariri was forced to announce his resignation as PM from the soil of Saudi Arabia in 2017 when he was on an official visit to the Kingdom.
The total numbers of registered voters were 3.9 million including 2.25 lakh expatriate voters spread across 58 countries and majority of them are in the Gulf countries. The total numbers of votes polled was around 41.1% (third lowest turnout in Lebanese electoral history) which was much less in comparison to 2018 election with 49.7%.[vii] The low turnout was most visible in the Sunni dominated constituencies on account of the boycott call given by head of Future Movement Party, Saad Hariri. On the whole, large number of people abstained from voting despite the call from the official clergy who exhorted people to participate in the electoral process to change the fate of the country.[viii] This meager participation by resident Lebanese voters could also be due to people’s growing anger and disenchantment with the redundant national political culture and explicit disconnect between the masses and the political class after all parties over the years have failed to fulfill the aspirations of the masses. One of the vendors outside the polling booth said that, “I preferred to boycott the election because Sunni or Shiite parties for decades brought nothing except injustice and humiliation” while another onlooker said that, “new generation perhaps does not know there is no hope left in the country”. [ix] The protestors over the months resented all political oligarchs and spared none in condemning for current political and economic mess. The principal slogan of the masses since the inception of the October 2019 turmoil crisis has been, “You all must go”[x]
Gainers and Losers
The most surprising element in this election was the decline in the political graph of the street-activist party like Islamist Hezbollah and Christian Free Patriotic Movement of current President Aoun.[xi] The political space of Christian Free Patriotic Movement was usurped by another Christian block Lebanese Force Party headed by Samir Gaegia. One new party, Party for Change sprang out of the civil movement of October-2019 and was able to dent the vote base of Hezbollah. The Party for Change called for desertion of old political class and for the formation of a new polity. The Hezbollah-Amal duo were able to win only 62 seats[xii] which made them lose majority as in the outgoing parliament, they had 72 seats. Despite this decline in their overall performance, Hezbollah-Amal duos were able to win all the 27 seats reserved for Shiite sects in electoral division of the country.[xiii] Many of the veteran deputies who have been in the house for more than two decades including the deputy speaker of the house, Greek Orthodox Elie Ferzil, lost their seats. Similarly Lebanese Force Party (founded as a militia during civil war in Lebanon),[xiv] an arch enemy of Hezbollah and close ally of the Saudi regime deprived its Christian opponent, Free Patriotic Movement, of traditional hold on the Christian votes and won 20 seats while its tally was 15 in 2018. President Michael Aoun of Free Patriotic Movement was the one who has historically Christian votes and has always used it as justification for claiming presidency for himself under the confessional political model. After this electoral loss, he might face political challenge to his presidency as the presidential election is only few months away and the head of Lebanese Force Party, Samir Gaegia could pose a potential threat to him on the basis of his growing popularity among the Christian voters. The defeat of Aoun’s party also indicates that Christian voters have equally held his party and his alliance with Hezbollah responsible for the on-going political and economic crisis in the country. Lebanese Force Party of Samir Gaegia was able to make this lead over its Christian political rival not only because of the political and economic mess of the country but also because of the absence of Saad Hariri’s party and subsequent transfer of his votes to anti-Hezbollah-Free Patriotic Movement duo because of their old rivalry with Saad Hariri’s party and for the voters Lebanese Force Party was the best bet to defeat Hezbollah and its affiliates.
Another major surprise was the entry of 13 new faces in the Assembly and those who have won, are part of the civil movement launched in October 2019 against high inflation and lingering political chaos. One new comer defeated veteran Druze politician, Talal Arsalan who belongs to one of the oldest political dynasties in Lebanon.[xv] Another new comer had won a seat in the capital town of Beirut which the Hezbollah had never lost in last three decades.
This time female candidates also fared well and doubled their tally from four in 2018 to eight this time.[xvi] The party of Druze leader Janbalat, Socialist Progressive Party gained seven seats and it was in alliance with the Lebanese Force Party.[xvii] The loss for Hezbollah seems to be more astounding despite the fact they seemed to have had a free ride in the absence of its old Sunni sectarian rival, Saad Hariri who, as mentioned earlier, was not in the fray. Several electoral districts which were known to be the traditional base of the Hezbollah-Amal-Free Patriotic Movement trio witnessed the lowest turnout (38%) indicating the people growing disenchantment with Hezbollah’s sectarian politics and its increasing involvement in regional politics rather than domestic issues. The Amal party has performed better than its ally partner, Hezbollah perhaps because it focussed more on domestic issues rather than regional politics. People also opted not to vote for the Hezbollah because of the economic plight people have suffered and the GCC did not come forward to offer economic assistance because of the hostility between Iran-backed Hezbollah and regimes in the GCC countries.[xviii] The voters might have imagined that their votes for non-Hezbollah forces would bring economic assistance from the GCC countries. Many political analysts and commentators had earlier believed that absence of Future Movement would directly benefit the Hezbollah but the economic plight of the masses deprived Hezbollah of benefitting from this new electoral arithmetic.
Through this election, people have expressed their disenchantment which is well-reflected in the low turnout. Even those who have voted they have done it merely for punishing the old oligarch for their corrupt, unaccountable and sectarian politics and elected new faces with the hope that new enthusiasts would bring the country out of political quagmire and economic mess. The election result also shows that people have chosen to break the circle erected by the trio alliance of Hezbollah-Amal-Free Patriotic Movement and change the way political affairs of the country are being managed for years.
What does it Mean for Regional Powers?
Hezbollah since its creation in 1984 is known for its proximity to Iran. But overall victory of anti-Hezbollah forces has changed the political gambit of the country. The winning of the majority of the seats by the non-Hezbollah forces along with newly formed Party of Change formed in 2019 following the civil right movement would essentially enhance the political clout of Saudi Arabia which have always condemned Hezbollah and its allies for its militant politics and pursuit of pro-Iran policy in the region, especially after the outbreak of Arab uprising when Hezbollah militias reportedly were seen fighting along with the forces of President Assad against the forces supported by the GCC states. Saudi Arabia along with other GCC countries have repeatedly shunned Lebanon and accused it of acting at the behest of Iran in Yemen and Syria. Further, the relationship between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia over the years had worsened because of the ascendency of Hezbollah in the Lebanese political arena but following the retreat of Hezbollah in this election, Saudi Arabia can be more receptive to the emerging new Lebanese polity. Not long after the election result was announced, Saudi Arabia’s envoy to Lebanon Abdul Bukhari tweeted that people of Lebanon have chosen stability over absurdity.[xix] It is worth mentioning here that Saudi Arabia had called back its envoy back in April 2021 over the statement of erstwhile Lebanese minister who had criticised the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen.[xx]
There is no doubt that victory of non-Hezbollah forces would impact the influence of Iran as new government would try to have good ties with the GCC countries because the country is in dire need of economic assistance that could come only from the GCC countries. Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies before the election had stated that their political and economic support to Lebanon would largely depend on the outcome of the elections. Lebanon is likely to witness a new phase of struggle inside the parliament between the Iran-loyalists and Saudi-loyalists to dictate the policy decision in the Assembly. Iran through Hezbollah may try to re-establish its hegemony which has eroded after the loss of majority by Hezbollah coalition in the parliament. Iran cannot allow Saudi Arabia and its GCC-affiliates to control the government in Lebanon and determine the nature of the geopolitics of the region. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia still believes that it has not achieved the goal of stopping Hezbollah from its pursuit of policy of regional intervention.
The election has come to an end and people have given their verdict but the electoral exercise has not resolved the lingering issue of political instability and economic ordeal that have been bothering the nation for long. No party has been able to cross the threshold and people have chosen a hung parliament which would delay the formation of the government. The biggest challenge would be to reach a consensus on the nomination of a new PM, the election of new president, due in October, would be another challenge apart from addressing the economic crisis that has drained the nation for decade.[xxi] The deepening divide among different political blocks would naturally hurt the economic prospect of the country and holding any negotiations with the IMF or the World Bank would be a major challenge in the absence of a united house. The deep ideological and political differences among different groups, horse-trading, rivalry and race for prime cabinet posts and conflict between the old oligarch and new entrants would complicate the task of government formation. Many of Sunni blocks which have voted for Lebanese Force Party out of their hatred for Hezbollah harbour their hostility towards its leader Samir Gagea for his pro-Israel policy. This might not allow him to win the support of majority of the Sunni deputies and he is already accused of being a fanatic anti-Sunni and was reportedly implicated in several cases during civil war of Lebanon. The process of government formation can be further delayed because of the ascendency of Lebanese Force Party headed by Samir Gagea who no doubt would make larger claim in the new parliament because of his better performance. One need to see how much political space the party of President Aoun concedes for his Christian opponent. The similar crisis can emerge during the presidential election when Samir Gagea, being the leader of biggest Christian political block could claim presidency for himself and can seek Hezbollah support as well because Hezbollah had supported Aoun for the post of President in 2016[xxii] on the ground that President Aoun ’s party had achieved the highest number of seats then. The spokesperson of Lebanese Force Party, in an interview, has already spoken of taking over the leadership of Christians in Lebanon. President Aoun has been nurturing his son-in-law Gibran Bassil for the post of president for long and keeping this in mind, he had allied with Hezbollah but after poor performance by both, it would be difficult for him to install his son-in-law as president and that would necessarily contaminate the political landscape.
Though we do not know the final shape of the Lebanese new parliament but it is sure that house, as in the past, would be divided between Iran-loyalist and Saudi-loyalist and one also needs to observe how the new deputies can evade the politics of encampment and navigate the political sphere largely divided between the loyalty with two regional powers.
The election is over but the biggest question remains what comes next and if the new government would be able to bring the economy on track or bring political stability in the country. What would be the means they would choose to convince the masses of their political will and capability to resolves the crisis which has tormented the nation for long? How the new ruling dispensation can win the trust of the masses who have lost all the hopes not only in the political parties alone but in the political culture of the country as a whole. What has really raged the masses for decades is the corruption and political wilderness of the ruling class which has sucked the state resources and confessional division of political landscape of the country further seems to have hindered the emergence of political unity that has always perpetuated the coalition politics leading to enduring political instability. The ensuing tussle between different political blocks will further delay the formation of stable government which is most needed in today’s Lebanon.
* Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, Senior Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
2 Lebanese Parliament: Hezbollah and its Allies Loses the Majority, Rail Youm, An Arabic Daily, May17, 2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3wPsC5K May25, 2022,
[iv] Diana Darke, Merchant of Syria: A History of Survival( London: Hurst & Company, 2018), p.no.171
7Asraar Shabaroo, Lebanese Election, Loss for Hezbollah and Gain for Party of Change, Al-Hurraah, An Arabic Portal, May 17, 2022, Accessed https://arbne.ws/3z0D5gj May 26, 2022
9Jani Daheebi, This Election may Have Repercussion on Lebanon Future, Al Jazeera Arabic, May 15, 2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3LPF89I May 27, 2022
[xi] A Christian party founded by President Michel Aoun in 2005 and currently headed by son-in-law Basil
12 Lebanon Announces Election Result: Gain Samir and Independent and Loss for Hezbollah, Arabic Post, An Arabic Portal, May 17, 2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3sYQ5ir May 28, 2022
16Abdel Aziz, Lebanon Elections Promise Change and Reform, Arab News, May 17, 2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3NIuxyL May 24, 2022
[xviii] Abdul Bari Atwaan, Does the Election Outcome Reflect the Israel-Gulf-US Alliance to Defeat the Resistance, Rail Youm, An Arabic Daily, May 16, 2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3wMCvB6 May 25, 2022
21 What the Saudi Envoy Tweeted after Lebanese Election Result, Euro News, An Arabic Portal, May 16, 2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3wO7KM8 May 20, 2022