In November 2017, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri stepped down from office while under house arrest in Saudi Arabia. In his resignation speech, which was televised from Riyadh, Hariri stated that Lebanon sits in the “eye of the storm” – at the epicenter of the regional rivalries, instability, and civil wars that have recently plagued the Middle East. After a drama-filled few weeks replete with claims of an assassination attempt, French intervention (including an “invitation” to Hariri to visit Paris), and a refusal from Lebanese President Michel Aoun to accept Hariri’s resignation from afar, the Prime Minister returned to Beirut and rescinded his resignation.
The waters of Lebanese politics have since calmed and the first parliamentary elections in nearly ten years are set for this May. Once regarded as “the Paris of the Middle East,” pre-civil war Lebanon was hailed as a rare island of contemporary living and successful consociational democracy in an otherwise turbulent region. However, since the end of its civil war in 1989, Lebanon has been strained by sectarian divides at home and regional tensions abroad; parliamentary elections have not been held since 2009 and there have been significant periods of time in which the country has not had a sitting president and/or prime minister. Several contextual factors may converge in this election, resulting in a directional shift in Lebanese politics—a new electoral law, a new group of young voters, increased female participation, and escalating regional tensions.
During the post-civil war Syrian occupation, Lebanese politics were largely divided along pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian lines. However, after the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (Saad Hariri’s father), anti-Syrian sentiment grew due to the widespread belief that Damascus had been responsible for the attack, prompting some previously divided factions to unite over a common desire to expel Syrian troops from Lebanese territory. Since then, the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel conflict and a massive influx of Syrian refugees equal to nearly a quarter of Lebanon’s prior population have tested the stability of the state. Further complicating security concerns, the Lebanese military has faced spillover effects from the Syrian Civil War, with occupation, albeit temporary, by jihadist groups in the border region of Arsal. Hezbollah, rather than the Lebanese military, ended up driving out these groups.
The Lebanese political landscape is currently divided between multiple sectarian factions competing for political influence. Such pluralism is institutionalized by the constitution, which calls for a Christian president, a Sunni prime minister, and a Shiite head of parliament. Parliamentary seats, too, are divided along sectarian lines. Previously, elections operated under a winner-take-all system but, under a new electoral law passed in June 2017, lawmakers redrew districts and replaced the old system with a proportional representation system. The 128 seats in the unicameral National Assembly are still allocated along sectarian lines but many expect the new representative system to result in shifting political dynamics. Major party coalitions, such as Hariri’s Future Movement Block, may lose seats, and the Hezbollah coalition may gain seats, according to some experts, due to the proportional nature of the new system and increasing Hezbollah influence. Familial ties (wasta) and influential families such as the Gemayels, the Aouns, and the Jumblatts have traditionally wielded significant political clout, often winning elections. These traditional familial and clan relationships may result in a similar group of politicians returning to power should voters wish to remain loyal.
Though much remains the same, the context of the 2018 elections is fundamentally different from that of the 2009 elections. Sectarian divisions still look likely to play a role, as in 2009 – when Sunnis largely aligned with Saad Hariri’s Future Movement block, Shias rallied behind the Hezbollah-led block, and Christians were divided between the two – but the recent role of Saudi Arabia in the Hariri resignation may alter this balance. This incident will likely remain fresh in voters’ minds as they take to the polls and, despite significant pro-Saudi sentiment in the past, many Lebanese may resent the manner in which the Saudis treated their prime minister. This, coupled with rising support for Iranian-backed Hezbollah, may translate into increased parliamentary votes for Hezbollah-aligned parties.
The most significant difference since 2009, however, is a widespread desire for change that has largely been ignored by outside observers. Forty percent of the population is twenty-four years old or younger, and many young Lebanese men and women who came of age witnessing the repercussions of the Arab Spring are now eligible to vote for the first time; the voting age in Lebanon is 21. Predicting the electoral impact of the youth bulge is difficult at best – particularly because there does not appear to be a unified youth movement in Lebanon today – but it is likely that this group’s voting preferences in May will be a harbinger of future demographic voting trends in the Lebanese state.
Under the new law, eligible voters cast a vote for a preferred list of candidates, as well as an additional vote for the individual candidate of their choice from their preferred list. The lists are compiled by the parties and include a block of candidates. For example, current member of parliament Bahia Hariri has introduced the Future Movement’s “Integration and Dignity” list of five candidates in the Sidon-Jezzine electoral district. The list contains nominees for the two Sunni seats, two Maronite seats, and one Catholic seat in the district. This list will vie for votes against lists of other parties and coalitions. This procedure, which pits candidates from the same block against one another, has resulted in the decision of many traditional politicians – such as former prime minister and current member of parliament Fouad Siniora – not to run for office.
Gender presents another contextual difference for the 2018 election. In 2009, only 12 female candidates participated, but 111 females are registered for the upcoming elections, including well-known figures such as journalist Paula Yaacoubian and one-time presidential candidate Nadine Moussa. In recent weeks, both Prime Minister Hariri and President Aoun have championed the role of women in politics and have actively encouraged women to vote with the knowledge that recent data indicates the number of women registered to vote in 2017 outnumbers that of registered male voters in all but eight districts. Hariri recently promised to include a quota for females in both parliament and in government more broadly in post-2018 elections in a recent speech to the Lebanese Council of Women in Beirut (although a gender quota is not part of the new electoral law). Four women currently hold seats in parliament.
The belief that the new law opens the door for traditionally marginalized parties is also spurring independent groups to engage in the electoral process. With incentives to establish new groups under the new proportional law, a reported eleven independent groups have formed Tahal of Watani – a unified force intended as an alternative for those voters disillusioned with the parties of old.
Prime Minister Hariri has stated that the new law prevents the process from being “controlled” and Lebanon’s Interior Minister Nouhad al-Mashnouq proffered the May elections as a “democratic carnival” for the Mediterranean state. However, many outside observers remain skeptical. In a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism hearing, Mr. Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, for instance, recently testified that the 2018 parliamentary elections may not bring changes to the Lebanese political status quo. Middle East regional tensions will not abate, regardless of the Lebanese election outcome, ; however, if the upcoming elections truly prove to be a carnival of democracy, the status quo in Lebanon may shift. The culmination in May of the new electoral law, the unknown voting trends of the youth, and the emergence of the female voice will provide insight into the future of the state. Will the 2018 election cede more power to Hezbollah-aligned factions, giving Iran more power in the state, or will Lebanese voters elect a diverse parliament reflective of the power-sharing Lebanon of old? Only a move toward democratic consolidation will strengthen the state and allow it to reject external influence.
Dr. Laura N. Bell is an Assistant Professor of Political Science, West Texas A&M University. Her research focuses on the Middle East, terrorism and political assassinations.