May 15, 2018

Guest Post: Lebanon ≠ Hezbollah – Why the elections are no indicator for the group’s strength

About one week after the Lebanese general elections, traces of the campaigns are still visible all over Beirut. Election posters are only slowly taken down and are being replaced with oversized thank you notes of the big parties. Traffic on the already congested highway was even slower than usual on Friday night, as buses full of cheering people from all over the country were on their way home, after following Saad Hariri’s call to celebrate his party’s support in Beirut. Personally, I was left wondering what he was thanking them for, considering his party – The Future Movement – lost a good 25 percent of its initial parliament seats. But then again, every vote counts, especially since only about 49 percent of eligible voters made their way to the polling stations on May 6. Since even the busy bars of Beirut’s usually carefree nightlife became the setting of heated political debates, it was disappointing to see how low turnout really was.

The Lebanese are disenchanted with their politics, convinced that the patronage structures will not change with elections. A new election law that was passed to make the parliament more representative of the voters, parting from the former “the winner takes it all” system and giving smaller parties and independent candidates a better chance to win a seat, could not change this perception. The law was rather a trigger for unrest after Election Day, allowing two candidates of the Hezbollah-Amal Movement alliance to move into parliament from the Hariri stronghold in West Beirut. Street violence broke out for two days as supporters of the alliance fired so-called celebratory shots and covered the statue of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri with their flag. An outbreak of violence, involving Hezbollah supporters might look worrisome to the outside world, but left the Lebanese, or at least the Beirutis, little impressed. While streets were rather empty the night after the elections and scooter drivers – the alliance’s preferred method of transportation that night – were still taken out of traffic during the following week, the sound of the guns was largely ignored as people went on with their lives.

In fact, the political set-up of Lebanon’s parliament makes it as good as impossible for dynamics to shift, and a two seat gain of the Amal Movement (contrary to many reports, it was the alliance of the two Shiite parties that gained seats, not Hezbollah itself that stagnated at 13 seats) will not change that. Without trying to generalize, it is an unwritten rule in the country that each religion and each sect votes for one of their own. It is a written rule that 64 of the 128 parliament seats go to Christians and 64 go to Muslims – 27 each for Sunni and Shiite candidates. Due to the size of the parties, the alliance of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement thus forms a monopoly of political representation for the Shiite community. This makes it hard to measure Hezbollah’s support on the ground in parliamentary seats – for many Shiite in Lebanon there is no good alternative if they want to vote within their sect. The national and international strength of Hezbollah should rather be evaluated by their level of armament and their relations with Syria and Iran.

Going back to the monopolization of political representation, the Sunni population of the country has even only one strong party to choose from, the Prime Minister’s Future Movement. The Christian camp offers a choice of three established parties – Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, that more than doubled their seats in the elections, President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, that gained only one seat, and Sami Gemayel’s Kataeb Party, that lost two. However, this intra-religious offer has no overall impact on the power balance in the country. Neither will the total election result have an impact on overall politics or on the Lebanese society – a social divide along religious lines is already existent. As long as the sectarian distribution of parliamentary seats holds, and voters decide for candidates based on religious affiliation instead of merit; as long as election fraud still occurs (more than 7,000 cases were reported), I do not see where political change in Lebanon could emerge from.

Lebanon is caught between the influences of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel and Syria and is under constant risk to be drawn into military conflict involving either of them. In order to avoid that, they must be politically stable. It is questionable, whether the Lebanese are ready to maintain a stable government if the prerequisites of their parliament formation were independent of religion, or if their voting behavior changed. For now, until voters are no longer confronted with a monopoly of political choices, this is what guarantees the country’s stability. Ultimately, the aftermath of the civil war is still palpable as many representatives of the older generation and their descendants are still politically active. And maybe the Lebanese simply need more time to recover, before they can initiate an internal change that will influence their position in the region.

About the author:

Nauel Semaan, German young professional with Middle Eastern background, based in Beirut and currently working for the Syria/Iraq Office of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

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