After long months of uncertainty and frustrating delays over the date of the Lebanese parliamentary elections, the elections finally began this morning, May 15th, 2022, in various parts of Lebanon, marking the first parliamentary elections since the country has been mired in an unprecedented economic crisis.
Polling centres opened at 7:00 a.m. local time (04:00 GMT) in 15 constituencies, enabling Lebanese citizens over the age of 21 to cast their ballots in villages and cities far from their hometowns.
The first and second rounds of the Lebanese elections abroad were held last week in 58 countries with a turnout of 60%, while today, 3,967,507 eligible voters are expected to go to the polls to pick 128 members of the Lebanese parliament.
In 2018, 77 lists were vying for seats in parliament. However, this year, the number has grown to 103 lists.
The Lebanese parliament, emerging from today’s election results, must address the urgent measures and legislative amendments demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to provide financial assistance to Lebanon, which has been reeling from a severe economic downturn for over two years.
Lebanon has been gripped by a severe economic crisis since the autumn of 2019, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 Pandemic in March 2020, followed by the tragic explosion at the Beirut port in August of the same year, exacerbating an already precarious situation and bringing the nation to the edge of utter economic collapse, according to analysts.
Simultaneously, the economic crisis has plummeted the value of the Lebanese lira by more than 90% against the US dollar, which the World Bank has described as one of the worst since 1850.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese government’s ability to provide basic services such as electricity, fuel, and medicine has decreased significantly due to the depletion of foreign exchange reserves in the country’s central bank.
In the meantime, the Lebanese citizens’ purchasing power has also been substantially reduced as they are unable to withdraw their deposits due to banking restrictions. Thus, millions of Lebanese citizens are now living in abject poverty as the daily minimum wage has fallen below $25.
Migration and brain drain from Lebanon have also contributed to the bleak socioeconomic situation as large segments of the highly educated middle class and professionals, including teachers, physicians, and nurses, are massively departing for good from their crisis-ravaged country.
Lebanon’s persistent brain drain predicament, according to officials in Beirut, has cost the country more than $69 billion.
What has added to the significance of this round of legislative elections is the subsequent election of a new Lebanese president, to succeed General Michel Aoun, whose term will end on October 31.
On the other hand, the overarching political configuration of the electoral lists for the election in Lebanon may be divided into three main categories.
The first is the pro-Iran, pro-Syria coalition that is made up of the dual Shiites of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, as well as their Christian Free Patriotic Movement led by Gebran Bassil.
The second is the list of political parties that are traditionally opposed to Hezbollah, including the Progressive Socialist Party led by the veteran politician Walid Jumblatt [whose electoral base is in the Druze-populated districts] and the far-right Lebanese Forces Party, headed by the former warlord Dr Samir Geagea. This pro-US coalition, wildly known as the March 14 Alliance, also supports the electoral lists of their Sunni allies, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Ashraf Rifi, who previously served as justice minister.
Due to its disunity, the March 14 Alliance was only able to offer a single list of candidates in the Chouf-Aaley region (Mount Lebanon’s fourth district), which included the Lebanese Forces Party and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party.
The third category, which did not participate in the last 2018 elections, is the list of politicians that surfaced in the aftermath of the mass demonstrations on October 17, 2019.
This group is primarily composed of the political and social currents that were once part of the established political structure, but have now presented themselves as a new opposition force. An example of this would be the Maronite Kataeb Party, which was known during Lebanon’s civil war as the Phalanges, and was responsible for perpetrating abhorrent crimes against the Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Notably, the failure of this so-called opposing movement to coalesce is its main weakness. This third group accounted for 60% of the electoral lists, with an average of four separate electoral lists in each constituency, which illustrates its failure to coalesce as a single block.
Observers predict that the outcome of this scenario will ultimately lead to the splitting of their votes.
However, the most significant variable in this parliamentary election is the absence of the candidates from the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri [Lebanon’s former Prime Minister], resulting in severe political divisions within the Lebanese Sunni community and heated competition between other Sunni parties in this round of the election.
The Sunni Future Movement would win a large number of parliamentary seats. Nonetheless, the boycott of this round of elections by Mr Hariri caused bitter schisms amidst the Sunni community [living mainly in northern Lebanon] and, on the other hand, a unique opportunity for other Sunni political figures, which had not existed for them formerly under the deep shadow of Hariri and his supporters. The profound rift in the Lebanese Sunni camp about whether or not to run in the election has gravely alarmed their longstanding Saudi supporters.
This is an ominous indication of an intense conflict between the Hariri-led Future Movement, and other Lebanese Sunni politicians, and in particular former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who defied Hariri’s decision not to run in the election.
Meanwhile, Fouad Siniora’s support for one of the electoral lists in Beirut’s second constituency without forming a coalition with key Sunni elements made the list vulnerable to a businessman’s list allied with Al-Jama’ah Al-Islamiyah [the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood], given that some Future Movement members indirectly support anti-Siniora candidates, to thwart Siniora’s hopes of attracting Sunni votes from Saad Hariri’s social base.
The Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Walid bin Abdullah Bukhari, directly appealed to the Lebanese Sunni community to end the boycott of the crucial parliamentary elections through Lebanon’s key Sunni institutions, including the Lebanese Sunni Dar al-Fatwa, while openly supporting Fouad Siniora’s electoral list dubbed “Beirut Confronts.”
But all the Saudi ambassador’s manoeuvres and even scathing attacks by the Saudi press on Hariri have gone nowhere, and according to some reports, it is difficult to assess whether Sunni currents outside the umbrella of the Future Movement can attract the majority of Sunni voters.
The long-running crisis between Hariri and Saudi officials reached its pinnacle in November 2017, when the Saudis took Hariri hostage as soon as he landed in Saudi Arabia, subsequently forcing him to declare his resignation from his position as Prime Minister.
The Lebanese President, Michel Aoun, however, rejected Hariri’s resignation, claiming that it was only contingent on Hariri’s presence in Beirut. The crisis was followed by France’s intervention, bringing him back to Beirut after relentless diplomatic efforts by the Elysée. Hariri then stayed in office until 2019, when he finally resigned.
The ongoing Lebanese parliamentary elections are the latest sign of the current never-solved crisis between Hariri and Riyadh.
To further their agendas in Lebanon, the Saudis attempted to replace Saad Hariri with Bahaa Hariri, Rafic Hariri’s oldest son. They’ve also focused on attracting members of the Christian community in Lebanon, particularly followers of Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces’ leader, and fervent opponents of Hezbollah and its other Lebanese allies.
In recent days, pro-Saudi politicians in Beirut have urged Saad Hariri to encourage his Sunni followers in Beirut to vote for Saudi-backed lists instead of boycotting the election.
According to local media reports, pro-Hariri Sunni followers are either boycotting the elections or voting for Sunni candidates who have condemned Saad Hariri’s humiliating exclusion from the political game in Lebanon.
Amid these complex dynamics and many shifting factors at play, the one unchanged feature in these elections, similar to the 2018 elections, is the unwavering alliance and cohesiveness of Hezbollah and its allies.
In fact, the strategy of Hezbollah and its allies proved to be successful in their quest to garner the largest number of parliamentary seats by presenting multiple electoral lists in some areas.
In Beirut’s second constituency, for instance, Al-Ahbash, also known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, a neo-traditionalist Sufi religious organisation, has presented a separate pro-Hezbollah list to improve their prospects of winning Sunni votes once held by the Future Movement.
Moreover, despite their partnership, Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement have each presented two different lists in the Sidon-Jezzine district.
On the other hand, uniting Christian allies, albeit rivals, on a single list, such as the Free Patriotic Movement and the Marada Movement headed by Suleiman Tony Frangieh in the third district in northern Lebanon, where they are both vying for the next presidential seat, has been a significant challenge for pro-Hezbollah lobbying groups.
While Hezbollah has chosen the slogan “We Stay, We Protect, and We Build” to address the financial concerns of ordinary Lebanese citizens, opposition political parties, regardless of the socio-economic woes that the country faces, have mainly concentrated their election campaigns on the weapon of resistance, which is the cornerstone of ensuring Lebanon’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
In this regard, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has previously stated that most opinion polls show that the majority of Lebanese people are more concerned with their living conditions, rather than Hezbollah’s weapons of resistance, adding that today, those who seek to disarm the resistance and eliminate Hezbollah and its allies have forgotten about the calamities that occurred in southern Lebanon and the terrible suffering of its people during the Zionist regime’s occupation.
Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah added: “Certain political groups employ the slogan of disarming Hezbollah as a mere tool in their election campaigns. They are completely unaware that citizens are concerned about their money deposited in the banks. When we ask those people who wish to disarm the resistance for an alternative, they are unable to provide one.”
Hezbollah’s Secretary-General linked some of the election campaigns against Hezbollah in recent weeks to the 33-day war against Israel, adding: “That war sought to disarm the resistance. This election campaign is likewise intended to disarm Hezbollah.” Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah added: “What we should all strive for is the notion of a just and competent country, and this is what we addressed in our election platform; we have the model and examples of a just government in mind, and we must work to implement these ideas.”
He stressed: “A just government is a government that cares about its citizens and fosters balanced development, not one that discriminates between regions for sectarian, partisan, or political reasons.”
Hezbollah’s Secretary-General noted: “Government funds belong to everyone and should be allocated equally through development programmes, while a fair tax law is one that is based on added value.”
In any case, many political observers believe that the opposition parties’ full-scale parliamentary campaign against Hezbollah and its supporters, launched under the slogan of “Disarming Hezbollah,” would catastrophically fail.
According to Lebanese distinguished scholar Antoine Haddad, by settling their internal disputes to maintain a comfortable parliamentary majority, Hezbollah and its allies have enhanced their chances to control the period before forming electoral lists.
Hezbollah can form a national coalition government by merging with a looming Sunni faction if it wins the election, which is almost certain.
Finally, given the deep-rooted rifts in the 14 March Alliance’s constituencies, Hezbollah and its allies would end the election in a landslide victory, whilst the defeat would be shared amongst pro-US opposition parties. As John F. Kennedy has famously said: Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.