Amid Regional Instability, Lebanon Prepares For First Parliamentary Elections Since 2009
Analysts predict that new electoral system will empower Hizbullah
It has been nearly a decade since Lebanese citizens last had the opportunity to go to the polls, with the current parliament having on three separate occasions unilaterally renewed its mandate for reasons ranging from security risks caused by the war in neighboring Syria to the inability to agree on electoral reform. But following an agreement last summer to replace a plurality voting system with proportional representation, elections finally will be held on May 6.
The new law also reduced the number of electoral constituencies (which may comprise more than one district) to fifteen, with seats allocated in each according to the size of the region’s population. Furthermore, parliamentary mandates within each constituency are reserved for various sects, including Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Catholics, Protestants, Greek Orthodox, etc.…
Given Lebanon’s tumultuous history, including a religiously-motivated civil war from 1975-1990, the political system has long guaranteed representation for all denominations, with parliament divided evenly between Christians and Muslims (64 seats apiece). Notably, Lebanon’s premiership is reserved for a Sunni Muslim, the presidency for a Maronite Christian and the position of parliament speaker for a Shi’a Muslim.
Tony Abu-Nejem, a Lebanese political analyst, believes that while the new electoral system is better than the previous one it is still inadequate. “The worst thing is that our politics is supposed to be democratic, but unfortunately Hizbullah inhibits majority rule by always claiming that the country needs a ‘government of national reconciliation.’ Hizbullah insists on this,” he elaborated to The Media Line, “in order to have the power to disable certain things and stay in control.”
Abu-Nejem further noted that the new law is likely to benefit Hizbullah—even though its Shiite supporters are a minority in Lebanon—as the organization is liable to leverage its existing power to increase its political representation by pressuring smaller sects and political parties to support it in the newly formed constituencies. In this regard, it is worthwhile highlighting that Lebanese President Michel Aoun is a close Hizbullah ally.
Not surprisingly, then, Mohammed Afif, a Hizbullah spokesperson, described the new electoral law to The Media Line as “the best thing that the political powers in Lebanon ever agreed on. Lebanese people are extremely happy,” he expounded, “therefore they are engaging with the election process. The most important thing is that the big blocs will no longer have a monopoly over decisions in the country.”
While describing Hizbullah “as a Lebanese political party with a Lebanese leadership,” Afif conceded that “Iran provided us with a lot of support in terms of weapons, money and other logistics to face the Israeli occupation that none of the Arab nations offered. There is no resistance group around the world that managed to work without a support system, and that is the logic.”
According to Nizar Abed al-Qader, a Lebanese parliamentarian and former army general, the upcoming vote stands to be “a big mess” due to the complexity of the new system. “The law is not a sound approach to politics. I don’t believe that the [eighty-one] parliament members who voted to pass the legislation understand its context. The law serves the agenda of the ‘resistance,” he asserted in reference to Hizbullah and its patron Iran, “and if they obtain a majority it will give them the authority to form a government based on their agenda.”
Indeed al-Qader predicts that Hizbullah will win either 70 or 71 seats, which will allow it to fundamentally change the political climate. “They will be able to mess with the sectarian and national balance,” he warned, “as well as Lebanon’s interests and diplomatic ties with the other countries.”
Lebanese political activist Ala’ Sarhal believes that last year’s decision to delay the elections eleven months so that the population could familiarize itself with the new law has not had the intended effect. “Lebanese people are confused about whether the law is in the best interest of the country or if it serves internal or foreign political agendas.” Nevertheless, he qualified to The Media Line, “the good thing is that we are having elections after nine years of instability.”
Amal Shaban, another Lebanese political activist, echoed these sentiments, telling The Media Line that “the vote is a real opportunity for the people to raise their voices for who they believe is going to solve the country’s many problems through the implementation of reforms. Change is what is important,” she concluded, “but it has to be in the right direction.”