The results of the Lebanese elections do not herald a radical change. Nor will they vindicate the protests that were meant to alter the Lebanese sectarian political system and create a new political entity, one able to make hard decisions and initiate basic political and economic reforms. Instead, the election results express not only “more of the same,” but an even worse situation of total deadlock. The low voter turnout (41%) is, if anything, a deep expression of the mistrust the Lebanese have toward their system and an expression of their despair. They do not think that change is going to happen in the near future. Low turnout has favored the traditional political parties, tribes and families, who have maintained their grip on the political system.
Hezbollah and Amal received the total Shiite vote (27 seats), while the Christian camp, divided as always, split into two main formations of equal representation. The Free Patriotic Movement was expected to lose because it is led by the president’s son-in-law, Gibran Bassil. Bassil has been implicated in bribery scandals, money-laundering and other dubious conduct, and is on a U.S. sanctions list. Although his bitter rival, Samir Geagea, received three more seats (18), Bassil announced that he would ally with the Armenian Tashnak party (three seats) and maintain the majority in the Christian bloc. This adds insult to injury, since Geagea lost a seat in his hometown of Bsharreh in northern Lebanon, while Hezbollah elected one of its political allies in the heart of the Christian enclave of Byblos (Jbeil).
As predicted earlier, the majority of the Sunni community boycotted the elections pursuant to the directive of former prime minister and head of the Future movement Saad Hariri. The result was a fragmented vote that created a real obstacle in the formation of the next government. The traditional families—Karameh, Siniora, Miqati—were trounced and most of their seats were won by independents.
As far as newcomers were concerned, 12 seats were won by the representatives of the 17th of October protest movement. Even though they represent a small minority in the 128-seat parliament, they contributed to the defeat of major Hezbollah allies like the Druze Talal Arslan—the sworn historical rival of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt—and the Eastern Orthodox Christian deputy speaker of parliament, Elie Ferzli, of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party. Of greater significance was the election of Elias Jradeh and Firas Hamdan in the South III district, who took seats that Hezbollah and its allies had not lost in three decades. The two 17th of October newcomers defeated Asaad Hardan of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party and the chairman of al-Mawared Bank, Marwan Kheireddine.
Having said all that, it is clear that Hezbollah and Amal have maintained their power because they succeeded in winning all 27 seats of the Shiite community. However, the Shiite duo has suffered a setback. Even with the addition of three seats won by their allies, they have lost the majority that they enjoyed in parliament (71 seats) as opposed to the current potential 62-seat coalition. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah admitted he had lost the majority in parliament; however, he pointed to the fact that no political group within the parliament can claim a majority. This creates a unique situation that demands cooperation from all sides in order to deal with the acute challenges of Lebanese society and its political system. The absence of such cooperation, Nasrallah insinuated, would create an unsustainable situation that would not be to the benefit of Hezbollah’s opponents.
Indeed, the fact that neither the opposition nor any other political formation has a majority points to the conclusion that the Lebanese constitutional system has driven itself into a deadlock. Nasrallah indicated that the coming days will be devoted to the formation of different parliamentary committees, the election of the Speaker of Parliament and his deputy, the formation of the next government and, finally, the election of the next president. Nasrallah expressed his view that without compromise and cooperation, the constitutional tasks will require an undefined period—a vacuum that could spill into more instability and chaos. From this perspective, it seems that Nasrallah’s goal is very clear. Based on his latest declarations on the eve of the elections and on May 18, in which he expressed his readiness to cooperate with other political factions, Hezbollah will strive to be represented in every government configuration. For many reasons, Nasrallah has no intention to allow Hezbollah to remain in the opposition.
No doubt one of the main reasons for Hezbollah’s desire to be included in the government is the fact that at the heart of the election campaign, the issue of disarming Hezbollah’s militia stood high on the agendas of both supporters and rivals. Nasrallah complained that his rivals made this the main item on the agenda and spread rumors that Hezbollah is a tool used to impose Iranian hegemony in Lebanon. Nasrallah made it crystal clear: Hezbollah will not disarm and will continue to fight Israel. To him, the election results gave Hezbollah a clear signal that the weapons of the “resistance” will not be seized, which strengthens Nasrallah’s open vow not to disarm.
In Nasrallah’s address on May 18, he acknowledged his setback in the elections and his loss of a parliamentary majority. He claimed the Lebanese electoral system was responsible for his loss because of its unfair representation of the Shiite community. In what was more than a hint, Nasrallah declared that the present archaic Lebanese electoral law should be modified and a new, more equitable one should be adopted. His vision for a new electoral law would enable the just expression of the popular vote in parliament and would be based on the representation of the actual vote of the Lebanese population, which would, in fact, favor the demographic advantage of the Shiite community.
In this light, were Hezbollah not included in the next Lebanese government, it is highly likely that it would exert every effort to paralyze such a government, as it has done in the past, until matters are settled in its favor. This logic is based on the attitude that Hezbollah’s inclusion in an elected government would reduce the chances of disarming its militia out of existence. This is in line with the strategic decision made by its sponsor and creator—Iran. Tehran continues to develop military capabilities for Hezbollah by further expansion of its missile arm and its precision missile project. This is especially true in view of the latest Israeli threats to strike Iran and its nuclear facilities.
Finally, in his electoral agenda, Nasrallah accused Israel of stealing gas and oil from Lebanese natural resources in the Karish field. He claimed that Lebanon has rights there and threatened that if Israel does not allow Lebanon to issue tenders for international drillers, which would prevent Lebanon from drilling in the field, then Hezbollah would do whatever was needed to thwart any Israeli use of it. In the absence of a political breakthrough on the Lebanese domestic scene, the issues of Karish and the disarmament of Hezbollah could become the flag to rally around the party.
In summary, pursuant to the wave of Hezbollah criticism by its political rivals that portrayed a loss of Lebanese consensus in regard to the Iranian-controlled movement, one could have expected that the election results might express the “waning” influence of Hezbollah and the reduction of its bargaining powers in the Lebanese body politic. The Shiite duo of Hezbollah and Amal have been at the heart of flamboyant criticism and lost its position at the center of the Lebanese consensus. Hezbollah has been accused of taking over the Lebanese state and establishing a state-within-a-state to neutralize its capability to effect any crucial decision that relates to its domestic and foreign policy.
The results of the Lebanese legislative elections were published on May 17 and did not bring about any radical change in the political system. Hezbollah and Amal are still the dominant figures and their potential for nuisance is greater than ever. For this reason, the results are in fact the ultimate expression of Lebanese despair in the aftermath of the 2019 October “revolution,” the disastrous economic crisis that catapulted almost 80% of the population below the poverty line, the pending non-investigation of the Beirut port explosion and the Lebanese political deadlock.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly a foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and deputy head for assessment of Israeli military intelligence.
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as military secretary to the prime minister and as chief of staff to the foreign minister. He edited the Jerusalem Center eBook “Iran: From Regional Challenge to Global Threat.” He is the author of “Hizballah: Between Iran and Lebanon.”
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.