Lebanon’s elections promise change and reforms
The official results are out for Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, which were held on Sunday. They indicate significant changes in the country’s political landscape. The pro-Iran, pro-Hezbollah bloc appears to have lost its majority and, with it, its ability to block Lebanon’s badly needed reforms and to advance Iran’s interests.
This change is much needed, as Lebanon’s economy has melted down, leaving about 80 percent of the people living below the poverty line and depriving about 30 percent of their jobs. Life savings were effectively wiped out as the currency lost about 90 percent of its value. Lebanon’s credit ratings suffered badly as it defaulted on debt obligations and failed to fight corruption or reach agreement with international financial institutions.
Politically, Lebanon has become isolated and ostracized both regionally and internationally, as it has defaulted on implementing UN Security Council resolutions and tolerated terrorist activities and drug trafficking.
A significant number of reform-minded opposition and independent candidates won in several districts, replacing pro-Hezbollah members, including the parliament’s deputy speaker and other long-serving deputies who were believed to be secure in their posts.
The Lebanese Forces, an opposition party, appears to have made sizable gains at the expense of President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, headed by Gebran Bassil, his son-in-law, who has been under US sanctions for some time due to corruption and his support for Hezbollah, a designated terrorist organization.
Lebanese women also did well, but their wins are not commensurate with their role in the country. They have been at the forefront of the pro-reform movement, which culminated in the October 2019 protests, and have had an impact on political events ever since, including these elections. There were only four women in the last parliament, or about 3 percent of its membership. There were about 110 female candidates out of a total of 718 running in Sunday’s elections. They are expected to do slightly better this time. However, even if the number of female deputies was doubled, they would still remain a miniscule minority. Apparently the revised election law, under which these polls were conducted, favors incumbents, and the sectarian-based power-sharing system remains patriarchal at its core.
The stakes are also very high for Aoun and Bassil, as the new parliament is tasked with choosing the next president once Aoun’s term expires in October. Although Lebanon has a presidential system, the president is not elected directly. Instead, the parliament sits as an electoral college to pick the new president. Aoun has been preparing the ground for his son-in-law to succeed him. For that purpose, they joined hands with Hezbollah and other pro-Iran deputies to form a bloc to serve their common interests, blocking the necessary reforms demanded by the Lebanese people and the international community.
But the changes brought about as a result of Sunday’s elections will make it difficult to reconstitute the same pro-Iran bloc, as many of its members lost their seats. It will be even more difficult for the remaining Hezbollah-allied members to block reforms.
The gains by reformers are especially significant considering the exceptional circumstances under which the polls were conducted. There were credible reports of disruptive actions by Hezbollah and other pro-Iran groups, including the intimidation of candidates, harassment of their supporters and curtailment of their campaign activities. Hezbollah, in particular, has a long history of strong-arm tactics against its opponents, including many assassinations.
The decision by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to boycott the elections, apparently out of frustration, made it difficult for his supporters to fully participate. His boycott and the hostile environment created by Hezbollah and its allies contributed to the low turnout, which was officially put at 41 percent — a significant drop from the 2018 elections, when turnout was about 50 percent.
As usual, it is expected that some losing candidates may contest the results, causing some delay in the final verdict. There are also rumors of vote manipulation and the diversion of ballot boxes, which should be investigated fully. However, veiled threats by Mohammed Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, hint at more ominous measures. Considering the group’s past conduct, including assassinations and other acts of violence against its adversaries, those threats should be taken seriously.
The changes are clear in the parliament and time is of the essence considering the dire situation in the country, as well as the need for reform and for engaging positively with the international community.
When the new parliament convenes, it will have many tasks at hand, with the most urgent being the economic situation and ending Lebanon’s isolation. Lebanon’s reputation can be restored when its institutions are working together to advance the country’s interests and refrain from interfering in its neighbors’ affairs.
The parliament’s next important task is preparing for the selection of the next president, which should be carried out without intimidation or threats of violence, so as to give the new incumbent the credibility and authority that he or she will need.
The changes brought about as a result of Sunday’s elections will make it difficult to reconstitute the same pro-Iran bloc.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
That reputation will be improved further when the parliament, president, prime minister and judiciary all work together and engage positively with both the Lebanese electorate and the international community to fight corruption, carry out the badly needed reforms and chart a reasonable foreign policy, independent from Iran.
Lebanon should do all it can to avoid a repeat of the delay tactics favored by pro-Iran groups elsewhere. Similar to Lebanon, pro-Iran groups in Iraq lost significantly in the October 2021 elections and, for seven months since, have managed to block the choice of a new president and prime minister.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1