Lebanon’s Election Puts Hezbollah in Driver’s Seat

Filed in Guest Voices by on May 8, 2018 0 Comments

The parliamentary election in Lebanon on May 6 produced, as always, a confusing array of winners and losers. But one thing is crystal clear: the militant Shia Muslim group Hezbollah is in the driver’s seat.

Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament allocates 64 seats each to the country’s Christian and Muslim faiths. They are then further subdivided between all of Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized religious sects. This leads to confusing and oftentimes shifting coalition building among various parties across the sectarian divides.

Lebanon should have held elections in 2013, but deputies extended their terms three times because parties could not agree on a new electoral law.

Beirut — capital of Lebanon

The national turnout, at 49 percent, was down compared to 54 percent in 2009. In Beirut precincts, the turnout was just between 32 and 42 percent. Some of this was attributed to confusion over the new electoral rules, which redrew constituency boundaries and changed the system from first past the post to proportional representation.

Altogether, 17 parties won seats, and a further 16 independents were also elected, under the new electoral system.

Hassan Nasrallah

But the main race was between Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Western and Saudi-supported Future Movement-led coalition and Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah and its allies, backed by Iran and Syria.

In effect, the election was part of the region-wide power struggle that is tearing apart the Middle East.

Hezbollah and its Shia Muslim partner Amal won 28 seats between them. At least another 16 seats were won by other political parties aligned with them.

By renewing their alliance with President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Maronite Christian party which took 16 seats, the two Shia groups will control enough seats needed to block the most important actions of parliament, for which a two-thirds quorum of members is required.

Michel Aoun

It is the first such alliance between major Maronite Christian and Shia Muslim political parties in Lebanon’s history.

However, the FPM lost a few seats to Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces (LF), a more militant Christian grouping, which nearly doubled its number of seats to 13. Still, the FPM remains the largest Christian presence in parliament.

The results of the election further bolster Iran’s allies in Lebanon and neighboring Syria at a time when Tehran faces growing Israeli military and political pressure.

The election was the first since war broke out in Syria in 2011. The Syrian civil war has divided Lebanon, pitting parties supporting Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad against Saudi-aligned parties opposed to it.

Hezbollah has sent thousands of its fighters to Syria to support forces loyal to Assad in battles against predominantly Sunni rebel forces and the Islamic State.

Pro-Syrian politicians made their strongest electoral comeback since Damascus ended a nearly three-decade military presence in 2005. Hardcore Syrian allies elected included former security chief Jamil Sayyed, former deputy parliament speaker Elie Firzly and former defence minister Abdul-Rahim Murad.

Hariri’s Future Movement (FM) won 20 seats in the voting, and though this was a major decline from the 33 they previously held, he will still have the largest Sunni Muslim bloc in parliament.

Saad Hariri

But the election results show that Sunni voters are losing faith in Hariri’s party amid a stagnant economy and general exasperation over the war in Syria that has brought one million refugees to Lebanon, swelling the population by 25 percent and overwhelming public services.

He may also have suffered from his abortive decision to resign as prime minister while visiting Saudi Arabia last November. He eventually returned to Beirut and rescinded his resignation, but it looked as if the Saudis, evidently concerned by the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics, were behind it. “We had hoped for a better result, it’s true,” stated Hariri. “And we were hoping for a wider bloc, with a higher Shia and Christian representation, that’s also true.”

The FM lost to Hezbollah and Amal-backed Sunni candidates even in his party’s strongholds of Beirut, Saida and Tripoli. The results show that “Beirut is for all the Lebanese,” Nasrallah boasted, and that it is “a capital of the resistance.”

Several of Hezbollah’s members have been accused of being behind the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, Rafik, himself a former Lebanese prime minister.

Hariri remarked that he would continue to work closely with Aoun, even though the president is allied with the rival Hezbollah-led bloc.

Nasrallah called the results a “great political and moral victory for the resistance option that protects the sovereignty of the country.” It was “mission accomplished.”  Hezbollah will be better positioned to fend off any suggestion it should disarm.

Hezbollah’s increasing influence in Lebanon and its ties with Iran and Syria worries Israel, with whom it fought a major war in the summer of 2006.

Hezbollah has been a member of Lebanon’s coalition government since 2016 and will clearly continue to remain in it, regardless of who becomes prime minister.

Iran welcomed the election results, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi saying his country would “support and cooperate” with any government that was elected by a majority.

A divided nation

Also commenting on the results, a member of Israel’s security cabinet said that the Lebanese state had become indistinguishable from Hezbollah, and this would affect Israel’s calculus should it wage a new war against the militant group.

“The State of Israel will not differentiate between the sovereign State of Lebanon and Hezbollah, and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory,”  another cabinet member, Naftali Bennett, the education minister , wrote on Twitter.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Henry Srebrnik

Leave a Reply