Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for 15 May, are dominating the headlines in the country’s media, shunting aside inflation, the plummeting national currency, the prosecution of those responsible for the Beirut Port explosions of 2020, and other crises that have rocked the country in recent years.
It is as though the elections, which might not have gone ahead had it not been for considerable international and regional pressure, are the lifeline that will rescue Lebanon from its agony.
Just under 1,050 candidates are standing for election on 103 electoral lists, compared to the 77 lists in the last elections in 2018. Hundred and eighteen of the candidates are women, the highest number ever. Eighty-six women candidates ran in the last elections, but only six won.
Lebanese citizens abroad have already cast their ballots amidst intense media coverage.
The polls are being conducted in accordance with the parliamentary elections Law 44 issued on 17 June 2017. This provides for a 128-seat legislature whose members are elected for four years by a system of proportional representation. The seats are divided among the country’s various Christian and Muslim denominations according to their demographic weight.
The elections law has been criticised on the grounds that it minimises the prospects of the opposition and independent parties and acts to perpetuate the control of the established parties and political blocs.
Although it contains some reforms of previous electoral laws, it has also contributed to entrenching flagrant sectarianism. Some have described the law as a recipe for strife and a cause of the 17 October 2019 uprising because it neither provides for proper popular representation nor for truly equal representation between Christians and Muslims.
Most of the campaigns of the over 100 lists and their candidates are built on ambiguously worded platforms, hollow promises and slogans that play on the public’s emotions but fail to offer concrete solutions to the problems that plague the Lebanese economy and the provision of public services.
“They deprived you of justice, so vote against them,” “Beirut needs heart,” and “We are liberating government,” are some of the slogans. One party’s campaign material takes advantage of the election date in May to hark back to the 7 May 2008 clashes and the Hizbullah militia’s invasion of Beirut.
Several forecasts have predicted that voter turnout this year will be lower than in 2018, when the turnout was 49.20 per cent, down from 54 per cent in 2009.
Many analysts in Lebanon believe that the elections will not bring significant change, and President of the Beirut Bar Association Nader Kasbar holds out little hope of progress. As long as the established parties control the situation – and they have the money, power, and popularity to do so – the results of the elections will not change, he said.
Much of this has to do with the fact that the grassroots uprising in 2019 ultimately did not yield anything concrete or constructive. “It produced individuals who possessed neither the skills, experience, nor wisdom to manage the affairs of the public and the country,” Kasbar said.
“The independents failed to break through the wall of the established parties, like we did in the Bar Association where the lawyers demonstrated that they are aware, level-headed, and strong. What this means is that the Lebanese people need to have their awareness raised. They do not need grand-sounding rhetoric that plays on sectarian sentiments or on anti-corruption, especially given the corruption we’ve seen from some of those who make such empty statements.”
Most of the electoral platforms this year are not serious and rarely go beyond sloganeering, Kasbar said, adding that most of the candidates pay lip service to vaguely worded programmes that are then never implemented.
“Some of these candidates have been in office or parliament for decades. What has changed that would suddenly make them able to succeed with this programme or that where they have never succeeded before,” he asked.
“We hope the people are aware of this and do not take the promises seriously. The programmes are for the elections and last no longer. They are like carbonated beverages. They fizz for a bit and then they go flat.”
He said he had been struck by the candidates telling people to vote “according to their conscience.” If conscience really were the arbiter, he said, “most of the candidates would have to hide their faces at home, especially the ones whose performance in office or in public life we know all too well.”
He does not pin high hopes on the civil society that emerged with the 17 October movement either. “The majority of the groups that took part in the uprising have shown that they are working to advance their own interests, not the welfare of the nation,” he said.
“They are nominating themselves in the hundreds, competing with each other and mounting very costly media campaigns. Meanwhile, their prospects of entering parliament are very limited, due to their lack of competence – though I hasten to add that some candidates are highly competent and well qualified to serve.”
The economic crisis in Lebanon is a major determinant in the elections. It shapes the public mood and is likely to influence turnout. It has also affected the role of money in influencing voter opinion.
“Those in need will be influenced by whoever pays them,” Kasbar said. “A voter who is unable to afford a loaf of bread will naturally opt for the candidate whose money will help feed his family over a candidate who doesn’t.”
This means that most votes will go to the established parties and that the next parliament will consist of the same MPs, apart from those who have decided not to run in the current elections such as the Future Movement and a handful of independents.
While the Shia groups Hizbullah headed by Hassan Nasrallah and Amal headed by Nabil Berri are confident of their ability to defeat the opposition in their districts of South Beirut and Southern Lebanon, Lebanon’s Sunni bloc is in an unusually difficult situation.
Former prime minister Saad Al-Hariri withdrew from politics in February, and the Future Movement he headed has heeded his call not to run in the parliamentary elections or nominate anyone to run on its behalf.
Prominent Sunni politicians such as current Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Tammam Sallam and Fouad Siniora have also decided not to run. Some have speculated that the return to Lebanon of the Saudi and Kuwaiti ambassadors and the creation of the Saudi-French fund for Lebanon are intended to salvage the Sunni bloc from its predicament.
Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid Al-Bukhari, Lebanese Forces President Samir Geagea, and former prime minister Fouad Siniora have all been working to forestall a Sunni boycott of the polls. They have been joined by the Lebanese Sunni community’s chief mufti, sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian, who in an Eid Al-Fitr sermon warned of “the danger of refraining from participation in the elections and the danger that the corrupt will be elected.”
“The elections are an opportunity we have to achieve change,” he said.
Hoda Rizk, a professor of politics at the Lebanese University, finds the Sunni electoral predicament worrisome. “This is the first time in the history of Lebanon that the Sunni vote has been disabled. None of the senior Sunni figures are leading electoral campaigns. The reason is the Saudi position towards former prime minister Saad Al-Hariri, and this has had a detrimental impact on the Sunni political front and caused a splintering of the Sunni vote,” she said.
There are no other major Sunni figures able to fill the vacuum and the choice of Geagea as the main Sunni candidate was a mistake, she added. “If he is popular among Christian voters, such popularity is lacking among Sunni voters,” she said
What this all boils down to is a weakening of the Sunni position and the status of the prime minister, a position reserved for a Sunni Muslim in the Lebanese system. The Taif Agreement that shaped Lebanon’s confessional system gives this position greater powers than the presidency, which is reserved for a Maronite Christian.
Sunni public opinion is in a state of shock and despair, and it lacks a compass, according to Rizk. She believes that funneling the Sunni vote behind the Lebanese Forces courts the danger of pitting Sunnis against Shias, putting the two on a course to civil war because it sidelines the Sunnis who do not support the policies of certain countries hostile to Iran.
No Arab project has ever managed to rally Lebanon’s Sunnis into a homogenous political trend, although they did show overwhelming support for Nasserism and Arab nationalism in the 1950s and for the Palestinian resistance until former Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat and his Fatah Movement were forced to leave Lebanon in 1982.
Soon after the end of the Lebanese Civil War and the Taif Agreement in 1989, Rafik Al-Hariri emerged as a strong and charismatic Sunni leader until his assassination in 2005. Others, such as Siniora, Tammam Sallam, Mikati, and Saad Al-Hariri, have tried to fill his shoes but failed.
Nevertheless, as Rizk stresses, they all avoided reaching a point of outright confrontation with Hizbullah so that Lebanon would not be plunged again into a civil war. The same thing has applied to Hizbullah, she said, which has also set up certain lines in order to avert a slide into a civil war that it knows would cause its downfall.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.