Five key things to know about Lebanon’s elections

  • 3 May 2018

Lebanon is heading towards its first election since 2009. Known as a microcosm of the Middle East, Lebanon continues to reflect greater Saudi-Iranian tensions in the region as the new internal dynamics have started to affect its political balances.

A polling station official explains the voting procedure to a Lebanese national preparing to cast her ballot in the parliamentary election at a polling station set up at the Lebanese School in Abidjan on April 29, 2018. ( AFP )

On May 6, Lebanon will be holding its first general election in nine years. The elections – scheduled almost five years after the initial May 2013 date – are taking place amidst local political turmoil directly linked to regional tensions.

Since the last election in 2009, Lebanon has faced a wide variety of issues from the influx of over one million Syrian refugees to internal political issues that contributed to a waste management crisis and protests in the capital city of Beirut to increasing tensions between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Lebanon has also been one of the main arenas where Saudi-Iranian brinkmanship has been playing out, most recently seen in the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in November. 

Here are five key things to know about Lebanon's upcoming elections.

1. The elections are the first since the passage of a new electoral law in 2017.

In June last year, Lebanese parliament passed a new electoral law that introduced a system of proportional representation that replaced the majoritarian system and re-arranged electoral districts (reducing the number from 26 to 15), among other changes. 

The passing of the law was hoped to help end the political stalemate that had prevented elections and pushed parliament to extend its tenure two times after elections in 2009.

This new setup means each district will have more diversity in terms of MPs from different sects, and has also seen types of coalitions between traditionally opposing parties. Analysts question whether the new law will actually translate to a proportional representation or to significant change in the outcome of the election.

Lebanese nationals show their ink-marked fingers after casting their ballots in the parliamentary election at a polling station set up at the Lebanese School in the Ivory Coast on April 29, 2018. A new law now allows Lebanese living abroad to vote for the first time since independence in 1943.(AFP)

Known for being home to nearly every kind of sectarian and ethnic group in the region, Lebanon’s political situation rests on a fragile system of power-sharing among the different segments of society, a setup that provides a tenuous peace at best and is prone to shake-ups and deadlocks on the regular. Under the constitution, the prime minister of the country must be a Sunni; the speaker of parliament, a Shia; and the president of the country, a Maronite Christian. The main political and military actor in the country, however, remains the Shia Hezbollah group linked to Tehran. 

2. After his forced resignation, Hariri has returned to Beirut with more support than before

In November, Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation from an undisclosed location in Riyadh, throwing Lebanese politics into disarray. The Hariri family has historic, political and economic ties with Saudi Arabia, and Sunni politics in Lebanon is likewise known to be closely tied with Saudi Arabia, which attempted to use the fragile political balance in Lebanon as another path to curbing Iran’s influence in the region. Iran uses its influence in the county mainly on Hezbollah, a Shia armed group which is also effective in domestic politics and has two seats in the cabinet.

However, the plan backfired, and Hariri managed to return to his position three weeks after his forced resignation, and both Hariri and Hezbollah emerged as popular as ever. But relations between Hariri and Saudi Arabia don't seem damaged.

Hariri has recently shared smiling selfies of himself with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, and has said that Lebanon would sign economic agreements with Saudi Arabia “very soon.”

Meanwhile, there are reports of growing dissent within Hariri’s Future Movement party by those who want a harsher stance towards Hezbollah. There are speculations that Hariri may remove those individuals moving forward.

3. The Druze minority still plays an important role in politics

The Druze are a small but influential minority in Lebanon, led by Waleed Jumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party. The Druze were part of the “March 14 alliance”, an anti-Syria coalition that was formed soon after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, Lebanon’s Prime Minister at the time. The alliance, which included Sunnis, Christians and Druze formed the majority in Lebanese government, against the “March 8” opposition, consisting of the Shia Hezbollah and Amal Movement, among other parties. 

In 2009, Jumblatt pulled out of the March 14 coalition in the context of changing regional alliances and tense domestic politics, thus affecting the coalition's majority in government. This was one of the main reasons behind Lebanon’s stalled politics and inability to hold elections since then. 

His party is now headed by his son, Taymour Jumblatt. Taymour, following in the footsteps of his father who made alliances with different groups in the Lebanese political spectrum, has reportedly approached opponents Hezbollah and the Future Movement Party in different constituencies for potential alliances. 

4. Israel’s regional politics plays a huge role in Lebanese politics, including support for Hezbollah

Talks of Hezbollah-Israel confrontation in Syria is not new, however there is an increasing sense of urgency as Hezbollah continues to consolidate its areas of influence in Syria, including near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Israel, which views Hezbollah as one of the main threats against its security because of the support it has from Iran, has been playing a bigger role in the Syrian war in recent months. It has been conducting air strikes against the regime and Iran-backed groups like Hezbollah in Syria, and pushing for an expansion of its “safety zone” along the occupied Golan Heights.

In December, the Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz threatened to attack all of Lebanon if Hezbollah attacked Israel. 

Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah chant slogans and hold flags as they listen to their leader Hassan Nasrallah during a rally in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.(Reuters)

“I remember a Saudi minister saying they will send Hezbollah back to their caves in south Lebanon. I am telling you that we will return Lebanon to the Stone Age,” he said in an interview.

This reality is not lost on the Lebanese Shia electorate.

Hezbollah cemented its position and legitimacy in Lebanon by fighting against Israeli forces during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then, it has been the main armed force in the small Mediterranean country and has played an active role in politics since 2005. 

Despite this support, many Lebanese are now questioning the extent of the militant group’s involvement in the Syrian war, where they fight against mostly Syrian Sunnis and whether it is actually beneficial for Lebanon. 

5. Hezbollah may lose some votes, but it won’t cause a big change in election results

This year, some of the Shia vote may slide from Hezbollah towards the Amal Movement, another Shia party that is also a Hezbollah ally. The two parties dominate the Shia vote in Lebanese elections. 

This prediction has been echoed by Hezbollah, which said it expects its allies to win more seats in parliament but that it did not expect a significant change in the divisions and balances of the government. 

Regional politics may be one reason behind the shift in the Shia vote. Hezbollah has been very active in the Syrian war, acting as the main ground force in support of the Syrian regime, even though Lebanon officially adopted a policy of “dissociation” from regional politics since 2012 to prevent stoking sectarian issues at home. 

While many Lebanese – including the Shia population – are increasingly wary of Hezbollah and its Syria policy, they still view the militant group and its party as the main defender of the Shias, an important position particularly during a period of heightened tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.