Can Lebanon’s watershed elections usher in much-needed change?
It is never easy to speculate about Lebanese politics. One can make the simple deduction that not much will change in the political balance of power in the event that parliamentary elections are held as planned on May 15. There is always the possibility that the elections may be postponed over some technical or financial issue. Lebanon is cash-strapped and the treasury is struggling to provide the 360 billion lira ($18 million) needed to cover election costs.
But that issue aside, there are a number of factors that could still deliver a surprise. On May 6 and 8, almost 250,000 Lebanese expatriates are expected to vote in the countries where they have registered. This figure is three times as many as registered for the 2018 elections. The October 2019 movement, a loose coalition of civil society and independent activists who initiated the Al-Thawra protests, believe that the expatriate vote will make a significant difference.
The Lebanese and the ruling political elite are divided over what the priorities should be. For the vast majority of Lebanese, economic recovery and genuine reforms top the list. But for the old rivals, who most Lebanese blame for decades of corruption and mismanagement, the issues are very different. Hezbollah and its allies, chief among them being the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil and the Amal movement led by Speaker Nabih Berri, hope to win a majority in the 128-member parliament, allowing them to maintain a blocking third in any future government.
But that is easier said than done. Aoun and Bassil have lost the trust of Christian voters and the election may deliver a strong boost to Hezbollah’s archrival and staunch nationalist Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces. Berri’s Amal may also lose some ground, as support for the movement has wavered as the country’s Shiites continue to suffer economically.
Hezbollah’s supporters will be called on to vote on an ideological basis and many will do so even though there is growing discontent among the rank and file over Hassan Nasrallah’s unabashed fealty to Tehran. Moreover, ordinary Shiites may not share his enthusiasm to fight in Syria or to prepare for a showdown with Israel. This election will be about economic survival more than the weapons of Hezbollah or the steep ideological gap between the two main camps — the March 14 and March 8 alliances.
But what Hezbollah may lose with its ally, the Free Patriotic Movement, it may still make up from the leaderless Sunnis. Saad Hariri’s decision to step down from politics has left his allies confused and with no clear roadmap. Prime Minister Najib Mikati has also decided not to stand, leaving the stage clear for younger and less-known Sunni candidates.
Hariri’s withdrawal has left his former allies, Samy Gemayel of the Kataeb Party and Suleiman Frangieh of Marada, to run their campaigns individually and with little coordination. That works for Nasrallah, whose main goal now is to underline that he and his allies have the final say over the future of Lebanon. A loss for Bassil to Geagea would mean that a new Christian leader would have emerged as Hezbollah’s rival.
But the outcome of the elections will not go far in putting Lebanon back on the road of painful recovery. It will take months for a new government to form and Hezbollah is likely to have its blocking third with veto power. That will not help Lebanon get its hands on a $3 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund, which has asked for key economic reforms to be adopted as a condition.
Moreover, if the traditional political elite continue to hold the reins of power, there will be little hope they will adopt the structural reforms that could come at their expense. While a majority of observers believe the elections will change little and that Iran stands to emerge as the winner once again, there are those who see the expatriate vote and the fact that many of the 1,043 candidates, including 155 women, are young and independent as a game changer.
The driving force for the country’s youth is despair and frustration with the status quo.
The driving force for Lebanon’s youth is despair and frustration with the status quo. The country is bankrupt and its institutions have collapsed. The August 2020 Beirut port blast has scarred the capital, but it has also exposed Lebanon as a failed state with a dysfunctional system. Since then, there has been a mass flight from the country. This election may well be a watershed and, while change may still happen, salvaging the Lebanese state will take years, if not decades.
It is shocking that Nasrallah does not see the bleak reality that is today’s Lebanon. It is also shocking that he still engages in power plays aimed at keeping him as the uncrowned king of the country, even as its tragedies metastasize.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010