North Africa, West Asia

Lebanon’s elections: whose victory?

The political discontent of the country’s Sunnis is arguably the more important message from these elections. 

Nancy Ezzeddine Ana Uzelac
16 May 2018

Ferris wheel in Beirut carries electoral campaign posters of Saad Hariri’s Future Movement. Picture by Marwan Naamani/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved. Recent parliamentary elections in Lebanon may look like a straight-out victory for the country’s Shi’a parties, but things are not that simple. 

If one takes international media headlines at face value, the outcome of Lebanon’s parliamentary election is clear: Hezbollah, the country’s militant Shi’a movement, won by a landslide. The assessment of many pundits that Lebanon simply is an outpost of the Iranian revolutionary guard on the Mediterranean has now become final. Or, as Naftali Bennett, the leader of Israel’s Jewish Home party, put it with his trademark subtlety: “The State of Israel will not differentiate between the sovereign State of Lebanon and Hezbollah, and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory".

A quick glance at the election results could justify the assumption of Hezbollah’s electoral dominance. Its electoral list with Amal (another Shi’a party) controls slightly over a third of the country’s 128-seat parliament (43 seats). If one adds the seats won by Hezbollah’s allies, the Free Patriotic Movement (a Maronite Christian party) and a few minor independents, it now commands a parliamentary majority of 67 seats. 

Seductively simple as they appear, these figures however hide more complex realities of fragmentation, political alliances and the significant risk that electoral success in Lebanon carries. 

As Lebanon’s political settlement comes under growing pressure, the political discontent of the country’s Sunnis is arguably the more important message from these elections.  

Let’s start with the hard numbers. The electoral results indicate that the 128-seat Lebanese parliament will feature 14 parties of which none took more than around 20 seats. This is a far cry from single party dominance. In fact, it rather points to fragmentation, a slow coalition formation process and a risk of early government failure. 

Having said that, Hezbollah/Amal did manage to double their seats and came out clear winners in terms of both their own number of seats and those of their allies. We argue that this is the result of three factors: Lebanon’s new electoral law, an astute electoral campaign and clever alliance formation. 

The 128-seat Lebanese parliament will feature 14 parties of which none took more than around 20 seats

The law shifted the basis for allocating votes to seats from a winner-takes-all majoritarian logic to a more proportional logic. Practically, it meant that minority seats suddenly became competitive across Lebanon’s voting districts. This enabled for example Hezbollah to compete effectively for Shia-reserved seats in Sunni-majority Beirut that used to accrue to the Future Movement of Saad Hariri. Lebanon’s new electoral law also allowed generous campaign financing which enabled parties to win votes by offering significant material incentives varying from direct cash (between $40 and $1000), school tuition fees, gas coupons and healthcare coverage. 

The Hezbollah-Amal list also ran an impressive voter-turnout operation that gained further momentum through a fatwa of Hezbollah’s spiritual leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, that called Lebanon’s Shi’a to the vote. Hezbollah also put its victory against the Islamic State to electoral purposes as a mobilizing factor by impressing on people that voting is an act of remembrance and respect for all martyrs. 

It is clear that Hezbollah’s ability to mobilize its supportersis an essential source of its power – both inside and outside of parliament. According to unofficial estimates, this secured a nation-wide Shi’a voter turnout of 67% with the Hezbollah-Amal list winning 92% of the vote in their Southern strongholds. While the turnout among Lebanon’s Christians was smaller at about 40%, the county’s Sunni population proved rather apathetic at a turnout of just 27%. This has cost the Future Movement 11 seats. 

Finally, Hezbollah cleverly partnered with both the Free Patriotic Movement and a range of smaller Sunni and Christian parties and individuals that now had a better chance under the proportional law.

Yet, these electoral results mostly formalize two longstanding trends in Lebanese politics: Hezbollah’s growing dominance and the Future Movement’s increasing decline. In fact,the most notable electoral shift is less Hezbollah’s victory and more the Sunni Future Movement’s loss (about a third of its seats). The gap between the Future Movement’s wealthy, jet-setting leaders and impoverished constituents has now become painfully visible. Even the standard clientelist strategy of rewarding votes with ‘goodies’ and promises at an extravagant scale – a ploy used to some extent by all parties - did not work this time around and was superseded by deeper grievances.  

The Future Movement’s rift between leaders and followers is also likely to be exploited by others. While Lebanon’s Salafi scene is marginal, Gulf efforts to rebalance Lebanese politics are likely to increase after these elections. The great irony here is that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely hastened the Future Movement’s electoral loss by illustrating Saad Hariri’s political and financial dependence last year when he forced him to resign, however temporary it turned out to be. Looking askance to the rise of various extremist groups among Iraq’s Sunnisin Anbar province demonstrates the risk of a growing feeling of political alienation and economic marginalization among an entire population group. 

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, was nevertheless jubilant, calling the electoral results: “… a great political and moral victory for the resistance option that protects the sovereignty of the country”. They are also, however, a double-edged sword because of their potential to undermine Hezbollah’s moral authority – already shaken in the brutal Syrian civil war – that it so painstakingly built through grassroots mobilization, ideological consistency and a steadfast refusal to openly engage with Lebanon’s notoriously corrupt political system. So far, Hezbollah has typically nominated only a few ministers and instead guided the country’s politicking through a mixture of persuasion and backstage threats. 

This will now be a much more difficult game to play. Hezbollah’s power is in the open and with it comes an expectation to engage in Lebanon’s day-to-day administration. The movement is likely to run straight into the corruption and inefficiency of Lebanon’s sectarian nepotism that it has always criticized. In case this morass sucks Hezbollah in, its moral credibility will be tainted. In case it does take more drastic action, for example by instigating serious anti-corruption reforms as it promised, it will likely lose several allies. Finally, should Hezbollah opt to stay in the shadowy corridors of power, that is likely to come at a price too. Why vote for a party that doesn’t use its power to deliver?

Taking a step backward, it is safe to say that the election result has rendered core elements of Lebanon’s current sectarian political settlement untenable. No longer can either Hezbollah pretend not to be a part of the governing fabric of the country or the country’s Sunni elite quietly trade abstinence in the country’s foreign and security policies for wealth and commercial leeway. The electoral results will drag them both out of their comfort zone.

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