Parliamentary Election in Lebanon: A Modest Wind of Change

The new parliament elected on 15 May 2002 will be different from its predecessor. The catastrophes which Lebanon has undergone since 2019 have left their mark in the ballot boxes. It remains to be seen whether the composition of the new chamber on the Place de l’Etoile and more generally the complex Lebanese political system will really be changed.

Beirut, 18 May 2022. Election posters along Bishara Khuri Avenue in Beirut
© Lorenzo Trombetta

In the Parliamentary election of 15 May 2022, the level of participation on a national scale remained the same as in 2028 (49%). However, a detailed analysis of the different districts shows that the local dynamics are far from uniform. Thus, in Jabal Amel, a Hezbollah stronghold, the participation was higher than it was four years ago. Besides which, the retirement of Saad Hariri, once candidate for the office of Prime Minister, seems to have prompted several voters to boycott the election, especially in the Harari strongholds in Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon and the south-central region of Bekaa. And in certain Maronite mountain districts, where the competition between Christians was especially keen, participation was over 60%.

Another important result was the arrival in parliament of 13 new faces (out of 128 MPs). They are an outgrowth of the 2019 protest movement which had its roots in the demonstrations that began in 2016. It is an oppositional front as plural and diversified as it is internally fragmented by personal conflicts and parochial rivalries. These 13 MPs representing a “renewal” also managed to weaken in various ways a number of mastodons like Elie Ferzli (immovable vice-speaker of parliament) or Assad Herdane, known in many circles as the standard-bearer for the government in Damascus. Two other prominent members of the pro-Syrian front, Talal Arslan and Wiam Wahhab lost their seats. As did Faisal Karami, heir to prominent Tripoli oligarchs, and the billionaire banker Marwan Khaireddin, who ran on the Hezbollah list and who is accused of being among those responsible for the capital flight in the autumn of 2019. After the initial euphoria of this grass roots “wind of change” the question arises whether these thirteen new MPs will manage, in the different stages of the legislature and the quasi-daily work of parliament to overcome their divisions and constitute a monolithic and coherent block to accompany a possible but unlikely transformation of the system.

Similarly, we may also wonder what would be the role of the sixteen candidates called “independent”, i.e. belonging to none of the traditional parties. They mostly represent special local interests and as has happened in the past could easily be co-opted into the system of institutional clientelism. Among these are billionaire Fouad Makhzoumi and Jean Talouzian, related to the owner of the Lebanese international banking group Société generale de banque au Liban (SGBL) and a representative of the landowners in the Maronite mountain region, Farid Al-Khazen. It will be interesting to see just how these sixteen “independents” and the thirteen opposition MPs will conduct the necessary political negotiations, which will by nature require a spirit of compromise if they are to be promoters of change.

Portions of hegemony to be shared

Another essential aspect of the current situation has to do with the presumed contradiction between the “majority” and the “opposition”. Contrary to other political systems, the Lebanese parliament cannot be looked upon as an assembly composed of two camps, a right and a left. In fact, the legislative body is part of a closely articulated hegemonic system culminating in a power structure which proceeds by association and is made up of the country’s chief leaders, each benefiting from the strengths (or suffering from the weaknesses) of their regional or international affiliations. The rhetorical opposition and ideological polarisation which peak at election time are used to mobilise their respective reservoirs of consensus. But at the top level, the various leaders are united by a converging and durable interest: the sharing of portions of hegemony. Parliament is a key instrument in this dynamic, involving permanent negotiations inside and outside of the official institutions.

In this sense, it can be a mistake to think that Hezbollah is now in the opposition and that the Christian Lebanese Forces are now going to form a majority coalition. In a very short time the absurdity of such an interpretation will become apparent, determined as it is by an inappropriate comparison with European institutional systems.

The next step will be the election of the speaker of Parliament, a position held for decades by Nabih Berry, the leader of Amal and a Hezbollah ally. It is hard to imagine that any political force having acquired a “majority” can violate the pact between “associates” to vote against the immovable Berry.

As for the constitution of the new cabinet, it is not in the country’s political tradition for the chief of state to appoint a Prime Minister belonging to the “majority” coalition as some may imagine. Instead, the custom is that a transversal consultation will take place among all the traditional forces to find a consensual cabinet composed of ministers from all the main parties.

In this context, it will be interesting to see the role which the “independents” and the MPs advocating “change” will play. One may wonder whether these different types of MPs, unaligned officially, will participate at all, even indirectly, in this negotiation in view of the formation of a cabinet representing a “national consensus” wherein a third of the total number of ministers must fall to each confession (the controversial principle of the“blocking third” and the “safety net third”).

A difficult agreement with the IMF

The thorny question of a potential agreement between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the authorities of Lebanon, a country suffering from the worst social-economic crisis it has ever known, leaves room for several scenarios. For now, the executive still in place, headed by the Tripoline billionaire Najib Mikati, is charged with the day-to-day business. But by virtue of the negotiations under way these last few months between the Lebanese authorities and the IMF, the future cabinet, endowed with full powers, and the newly elected Parliament, must agree to enact a series of very sensitive key laws which will provide the Fund minimal guarantees making it possible to transform the present preliminary arrangement into a formal agreement. This would open the way for the payment of eagerly awaited resources: three billion dollars over a period of 46 months. We are talking about institutional, legislative, and executive measures which have already been bones of contention between the traditional political forces during recent months and recent weeks. And there is nothing to indicate that they will see eye to eye on these outstanding issues. So we may wonder if the composition of the next cabinet will be finalised quickly enough for an agreement with the IMF to be concluded in time. And whether Mikati is still the best candidate for the office of Prime Minister whom the ruling elite can propose to proceed with what is called the “financial transition”.

Another possibility is that the formation of a new executive will be delayed by one of those institutional stalemates to which the Lebanese are accustomed. In Lebanon, political-institutional negotiations can last several months or more than a year in certain cases. The issue now is how to avoid another collapse of the economy (with a money that has already lost 95% of its value) and the consequent deterioration of the social-economic situation in a country where, according to the UN, 80% of the population is “living in poverty”. In less than a week, between the eve of the election and the publication of the results, the value of the local pound against the US dollar has plummeted to 30,000 pounds for one greenback (it was 20,000 pounds in the autumn of 2021, and 1,500 before the present crisis began).

This being the situation, it is hard to imagine that the presidential election, scheduled for the coming autumn, will take place as planned. It is more likely to be put off till at least next year until such time as a domestic agreement is reached which will have to consider, as is customary, other regional developments (including among other things the Iranian nuclear deal) and international factors (the war in Ukraine and its repercussions).

The army: a guarantee of stability?

However, in the light of the 15-May’s election results, the question arises as to who the possible candidates for the presidency are, an office reserved for a member of the Maronite community. If the de facto leader of Michel Aoun’s movement, Gibran Bassil now appears to be excluded from the presidential race because of his party’s electoral defeat at the hands of its historical rival, the Lebanese Forces. Even the present army chief, General Joseph Aoun, does not appear to have the staying power to be a successful contestant in what amounts to a slow marathon.

Considering the present situation, marked by periodic waves of social tension and urban political violence, the army is in fact called upon to do a job which is not necessarily in line with the objectives of social-political progress. The foreign powers of the West continue to finance the country’s armed forces to maintain its “stability”. Often enough what is at stake is repressing the pockets of increasing socio-economic and political discontent, especially in those regions seen as marginal with respect to the system of distribution of privileges and services.

In many sectors of society, the choice of certain European chancelleries and the United States to support unreservedly the Lebanese army as though it were the “guardian of domestic stability” has ultimately strengthened the role of the traditional elites, many of whom are already directly supported and financed by other foreign powers. In the view of these elites, those forms of dissidence which cannot be co-opted into the patronage system must be marginalised, delegitimised (in the name of the “war on terror”) and repressed, as is so often the case in the impoverished suburbs of Tripoli and the surrounding region.