BEIRUT: Campaigns are in full swing less than two weeks from Lebanon’s first national elections in nine years and just a few days away from expatriates voting at polling stations abroad.
The 583 candidates, spread over 77 lists, will compete across 15 districts to win spots in the country’s 128-seat Parliament.
Experts believe they know who will win most of the seats. Kamal Feghali, a veteran pollster, told The Daily Star that “surely more than 50 percent” of the seats are determined.
A top research firm said 90 seats were already decided, leaving only 38 competitive places. The firm gave the information on condition of anonymity because it did not want to be seen as favoring anyone.
The 38 undecided seats span the country, but some races are more competitive than others.
Here’s a breakdown of what’s going on in each district – what has happened so far and what to look out for in the coming days.
NORTH I: AKKAR
The country’s northernmost district is a Future Movement stronghold. But the party of Prime Minister Saad Hariri is almost certain to lose seats since it swept all seven in 2009 under the winner-take-all system.
Future faces five other lists: a March 8 alliance; a tie-up of the Free Patriotic Movement and Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya; a list backed by former Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi; and two independent slates, one all women, the other all men.
Most observers believe Future will still win three to five seats, with the March 8 and FPM-Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya slates also likely making the cut.
Rifi is hoping the experts are wrong, citing the massive turnout to his list’s announcement powwow last month. Rifi and the independent lists believe Akkar is ripe for change, citing popular frustration over the lack of jobs and investment in the region.
NORTH II: TRIPOLI, MINYEH, DINNIEH
Those frustrations aren’t confined to Akkar. They are major sore points for Lebanon’s second city and the capital of the north.
A whopping eight lists have joined battle, promising to address them: the Future Movement; a slate from former Prime Minister Najib Mikati; a list headed by Rifi; another from former Youth and Sports Minister Faisal Karami; a tie-up of former MP Misbah al-Ahdab and Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya; a list from the Kilna Watani (All for the Nation) independent coalition; a list from Kamal al-Kheir and the FPM; and an independent slate.
While most believe the Future Movement will take the seat in Minyeh and one of Dinnieh’s two seats – the other going to former MP Jihad al-Samad – there’s a great deal of uncertainty over the general outcome in the city.
Mikati is making a full-court press, fielding a complete list with well-known names such as former minister Jean Obeid and Toufic Sultan. He also nabbed MP Kazem Kheir, who was unceremoniously dropped by the Future Movement the day after he launched his campaign in Minyeh. Mikati’s list is expected to win two to five spots in the 11-seat district.
Rifi is also expected to win at least one seat for his list, but is hoping for a repeat of the 2016 municipal elections when his slate upended Tripoli politics, winning 16 of the city’s 24 seats. That win deeply shocked the Tripolitan establishment, and many believe they won’t let it happen again – especially with parliamentary seats at stake.
Mikati and Rifi are squeezing the Future Movement from different sides, Mikati taking the mantle of moderation and Rifi playing to popular anti-Hezbollah sentiment. In the middle, Hariri is counting on big names to bring in the vote – MPs Mohammad Kabbara and Samir Jisr, and the formidable electoral machine of retiring MP Mohammad Safadi. Most estimates put Future’s take at three to five seats, including Minyeh and Dinnieh.
Another two seats are expected to go to Karami’s list: his slot in Tripoli and Samad in Dinnieh. By a twist of the new electoral law, Samad is expected to “beat” Karami since Dinnieh is a smaller subdistrict than Tripoli, making preferential votes cast weigh more there. So if Karami’s list fails to take two seats, he is likely to lose out personally.
The research firm that spoke to The Daily Star puts the number of undecided seats in Tripoli at four, making the city one of the most competitive and uncertain races in the country.
NORTH III: BATROUN, KOURA, BSHARRI, ZGHARTA
The firm also believes North III will be very competitive – four seats out of 10 are undecided here. But this race is being watched closely for another reason: Three presidential contenders will clash in an early skirmish before the 2022 election.
Marada leader MP Sleiman Frangieh is attempting to pass his seat to his son Tony in Zgharta; Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea’s wife Strida is running to keep her seat in Bsharri; and FPM leader Gebran Bassil is making a third attempt to gain a seat in Batroun. It’s make-or-break for Bassil, and most observers give him the edge.
But he’s running against two heavyweights: longtime MP Boutros Harb and Fadi Saad, the former secretary-general of the LF. There are only two seats in Batroun, meaning one of these titans will fall on May 6.
In the North III district, four lists are competing: an alliance of the FPM, Michel Mouawad’s Independence Movement, and Future MP Nicolas Ghosn; an LF-Kataeb tie-up; a Kilna Watani list; and an ideologically heterogeneous alliance between pro-March 14 Harb and the pro-March 8 Marada Movement and Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
MOUNT LEBANON I: KESROUAN, JBEIL
North III isn’t the only district with presidential politics. In Kesrouan and Jbeil, retired Brig. Gen. Chamel Roukoz is attempting to show he’s got the chops to move from military leadership to political leadership, running for the seat vacated by his father-in-law, Michel Aoun, when he was elected president in October 2016.
Roukoz is heading the FPM-supported list – but very little about it resembles the party founded by Aoun and headed by Bassil, another of Aoun’s sons-in-law.
The list is a mishmash of allies and enemies, including former MP Mansour al-Bon, a longtime March 14 adherent and critic of Aoun, and Neemat Frem, a billionaire.
Ziad Baroud, a well-respected independent former interior minister, is also on the list.
“They have not yet officially announced the list and I don’t think they will ever do so,” Feghali told The Daily Star. “They have not come together for a united photograph of the list.”
Not only do the candidates lack a common campaign, only two of the eight sport FPM-branded advertisements. The others – including Roukoz – essentially appear to be running as independents on a common ticket.
Roukoz’s own lack of membership in the FPM has fanned talk of him as a competitor to Bassil in the race for president. But if he is unable to follow in Aoun’s footsteps and command a united bloc in Kesrouan, his path to Baabda Palace may be tougher.
As with the Future Movement in Akkar, the FPM swept Jbeil and Kesrouan in 2009, meaning it will face losses under the new proportional system. Half of the district’s eight seats are undecided, according to the research firm.
Roukoz’s ticket will face four competing lists on May 6: an LF-backed list led by former Jbeil Mayor Ziad Hawat; a Kilna Watani list; a Hezbollah-backed list led by Hussein Zeaiter; and a list led by former MPs Farid Haykal Khazen and Fares Soueid. Soueid is the coordinator for the March 14 general secretariat, and Khazen ran unsuccessfully alongside Bon in both 2005 and 2009.
MOUNT LEBANON II: METN
The FPM is also facing a tough fight in Metn, trying to defend the six seats it and its allies won in 2009.
There are five lists competing for the district’s eights seats: the FPM-led list with Tashnag, the SSNP and billionaire Sarkis Sarkis; a Kataeb list led by party leader MP Sami Gemayel; an LF-led list; a Kilna Watani list led by former minister Charbel Nahas; and an independent list led by MP Michel Murr, the “godfather” of Metn politics.
In 2009, only Gemayel and Murr won seats away from the FPM lineup. Under this year’s proportional system, the FPM is expected to win around half of the eight seats, with two going to Kataeb and one each going to Murr and the LF. Those numbers may change, however, especially if one of these four slates fails to meet the electoral threshold.
And while there may be near-consensus on the range of seat distributions among lists, much is still in the air over which of the list’s candidates will fill the chairs.
The research firm said three seats were undecided.
MOUNT LEBANON III: BAABDA
Change is all but guaranteed in Baabda. A single list represents the political status quo, but that slate will likely only get three or four of the district’s six seats.
Four of the district’s MPs are running on a monster alliance of the FPM, Amal Movement, Hezbollah and Talal Arslan’s Lebanese Democratic Party. The other two MPs are bowing out – the LDP is switching out its Druze candidate and Hezbollah MP Bilal Farhat is leaving in favor of Amal candidate Fadi Alameh.
This list faces three challengers: an alliance of the Progressive Socialist Party and LF; a mashup of Kataeb, the National Liberal Party and independents; and Kilna Watani.
The PSP-LF list is expected to take two seats – likely PSP candidate Hadi Abul Hasan and LF candidate Pierre Bou Assi, the current social affairs minister.
The Kataeb-NLP list could get a seat, but that depends on turnout, according to a Kataeb official.
The more people who vote, the harder it will be for the list to take a seat, they said.
An FPM official corroborated this dynamic, telling The Daily Star that higher turnout will work in their list’s favor.
The Kilna Watani list is expected to be eliminated in Baabda, but faces much friendlier terrain just to the south in Chouf and Aley.
MOUNT LEBANON IV: CHOUF, ALEY
Here, the national coalition of independents is expected to claim at least one seat – potentially their only win in the country. At 7.7 percent, the district has the lowest electoral threshold proportionally, making it a prime target for outsiders.
Another independent list led by Mark Daou is also hoping for a seat.
But both Daou and Kilna Watani will draw from the same pool of independent-minded voters, observers say, meaning the success of one might mean the failure of the other – or a split might prevent both from entering Parliament.
The two outsider lists face four strong competing tickets: a PSP-LF-Future alliance; a tie-up of the FPM, LDP and SSNP; a Kataeb-NLP list; and a slate from former minister Wiam Wahhab.
The PSP-LF-Future ticket is expected to take the lion’s share of the district’s 13 seats – perhaps eight or nine, according to Feghali and others – as PSP leader Walid Joumblatt hands the reins over to his son and heir Teymour.
The FPM-LDP-SSNP list is likely to take between three and five seats, according to observers.
The Kataeb and NLP believe they are close to the electoral threshold, but a seat is not guaranteed. Wahhab faces a similar situation.
SOUTH I: SIDON CITY, JEZZINE
With the country’s highest electoral threshold by proportion – 20 percent – Sidon city and Jezzine is a district built for powerful coalitions.
Each of the subdistricts have about 60,000 registered voters, but the politics of Sidon appear likely to outweigh those of Jezzine. In the city, two heavyweight Sunnis look set to dominate the competition, pulling their allies along.
MP Bahia Hariri heads the Future Movement’s list, while former MP Osama Saad heads the main competition. Each could take up to two seats: one of Sidon’s two Sunni seats and one Christian seat in Jezzine.
One or two seats in Jezzine are thought likely to go to the FPM, which is in an alliance with Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya and former Sidon Mayor Abdel-Rahim Bizri.
Since the FPM swept Jezzine in 2009, it is facing a potential loss of one to two seats in the district.
The fourth ticket in the race, an alliance between the LF, Kataeb and so-called March 11 movement, is likely to be eliminated.
SOUTH II: TYRE, ZAHRANI
While Sidon-Jezzine has the highest threshold by percent, Tyre-Zahrani has one of the highest thresholds by numbers. Depending on turnout, lists will need 20,000 to 24,000 votes to steal any of the district’s seven seats from the dominant Hezbollah-Amal list.
That is unlikely to happen, but one list is giving it a try.
A coalition of independents led by Riad al-Asaad will attempt to take a seat in Amal leader and Speaker Nabih Berri’s backyard.
Asaad led a similar gambit in 2009 when Zahrani and Tyre were separate districts. Running in the former, he got just 3,574 votes, more than 40,000 short of winning a seat.
This time around, he could have a seat with just 20,000 more.
SOUTH III: NABATIEH, BINT JBEIL, MARJAYOUN-HASBAYA
While Amal and Hezbollah are sitting pretty in Tyre and Zahrani, they are much less comfortable next door in the district composed of Nabatieh, Bint Jbeil and Marjayoun-Hasbaya.
The Shiite duo is still expected to dominate. Their strategy is to massively mobilize their voters in order to push up the electoral threshold and shut out their competitors, and claim all 11 seats for themselves.
They have five challengers: an alliance of the FPM, Future Movement and LDP; an LF-led slate; Kilna Watani; a Lebanese Communist Party ticket; and a list led by Ahmad al-Asaad, the son of late Parliament Speaker Kamel al-Asaad.
The FPM-Future-LDP ticket has the best shot at breaking through – particularly FPM’s Chadi Massaad and Future’s Imad al-Khatib, according to observers.
But others caution that much is still up in the air, especially in Marjayoun-Hasbaya.
BEKAA I: ZAHLE
Zahle will likely see a heavy battle and is perhaps one of the more unpredictable districts.
The “Catholic’s capital” will be one of the few areas where it is likely that a number of new faces will make it into Parliament.
According to analysts, an expected 105,000 voters will cast ballots out of the 172,000 registered.
The district has seven seats – two Catholic, one Orthodox, one Maronite, one Armenian Orthodox, one Sunni and one Shiite.
The FPM-Future Movement alliance looks like the favorite to win at least three seats.
“We can’t accurately predict which seats they’ll win, but for sure three seats to them,” a leading pollster in Lebanon told The Daily Star.
“If the Future Movement is able to correctly divide their votes among its Armenian Orthodox and Sunni candidate, then both will come out victorious for sure,” the same polling source added.
There are over 47,000 registered Sunni voters in Zahle.
As for the FPM-backed candidates, Asaad Nakad (Orthodox) and Salim Aoun (Maronite) have a strong chance of winning.
But this depends on the other three lists, which also have a convincing case of coming out on top.
The Lebanese Forces could take a Catholic seat with George Oqeis, while Myriam Skaff will hope to win one of the two seats – and could very well earn the 15,000 votes needed to gain it.
But current MP Nicolas Fattoush, also a Catholic, is on a list backed by Hezbollah and Amal.
The list’s Shiite candidate, Anwar Jomaa, is almost a given if a little over half of the 27,000 plus Shiite voters head to the polls.
But 1,000 votes could be the difference between the winners.
The FPM list has three strong Christian candidates in Nakad, Aoun and Michel Daher (Catholic).
“They are competing against each other for preferential votes, but Daher has the toughest task of winning due to the LF, Fattoush and Skaff’s strong influence in the region,” the source said.
But the previous elections in 2009 saw around 60 percent of the district’s residents vote. However, many expatriates made the trip to vote – something that may significantly affect the threshold this year, depending on their willingness to travel to cast their ballot.
BEKAA II: WEST BEKAA-RASHAYA
Similar to Beirut II, the Future Movement has long dominated all the seats designated to the West Bekaa-Rashaya district.
Despite the new electoral law that will undoubtedly strip seats from this list, backed by Saad Hariri, the Future Movement will hope to maintain at least three of the district’s six seats in Parliament.
MP Robert Ghanem, who was the highest vote winner out of all candidates in the last elections, has stepped aside and 84-year-old businessman Henri Chedid hopes to come out victorious as the district’s Maronite MP also backed by the Future Movement.
But Berri is looking to capitalize on a strong Shiite presence in the region by taking control of the one Shiite seat via Mohammad Nasrallah.
This list is headed by former minister Abdel-Rahim Mrad as he stands a strong chance to take one of the two Sunni seats.
As for the Orthodox seat, analysts believe if one Christian seat goes to one list, the other will go to the opposing list.
If Chedid wins from the Future list, former Deputy Prime Minister Elie Ferzli – the Orthodox candidate from Mrad’s list – could make his way back into the political class.
But he has a tall task as newcomer Ghassan Skaff is poised to get the backing of younger voters in the area. Skaff, a neurosurgeon at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, is the Orthodox candidate from the Future list, while Mohammad Qoraawi is the second Sunni candidate after current MP Ziad Qaderi.
MP Amin Wehbe stands a slim chance in the face of Nasrallah while MP Wael Abu Faour is poised to retain his Druze seat.
Traditionally, the region of more than 65,000 Sunni voters has been predominantly represented in Parliament by pro-Future candidates.
Shiite and Druze voters for this year each hover at around 20,000 while there are around 30,000 Christian voters.
Western Bekaa-Rashaya could very well see the two main lists split the number of MPs in half.
BEKAA III: BAALBECK-HERMEL
One of the most talked about districts in this year’s elections is Baalbeck-Hermel, which boasts a heavy hand in Parliament with 10 seats – six Shiite, two Sunni, one Maronite and one Catholic.
Hezbollah and the Amal Movement will likely continue to dominate the elections, but there will be nothing short of an all-out battle for the non-Shiite seats.
The Future Movement and Lebanese Forces have teamed up with the aim of winning the two Sunni seats and the Maronite seat.
Maronite voters make up just over 20,000, while Catholics have around 16,000 and minority Christians close to 2,500.
The Lebanese Forces believe they have a strong shot of their candidate Antoine Habchi benefitting from the preferential votes, but MP Emile Rahme has the backing of Hezbollah and a good chunk of the 220,000 plus Shiite voters.
As for the Sunni candidates, Future’s Hussein Solh and Bakri Hujeiri could be the area’s first non-Hezbollah Sunni MPs.
Between the Hujeiri family in Arsal and the rest of the 41,000-plus Sunni voters in the area, Future could well take the Sunni seats.
The six Shiite seats are essentially locked in for the Shiite duo, despite opposing Shiite candidates hoping to squeeze into Parliament to address the area’s lack of infrastructure projects, lack of job opportunities and unfulfilled promises made by Hezbollah and Amal.
The long talk regarding a general amnesty law to forgive tens of thousands of crimes features large in the area but it remains unlikely to be addressed ahead of the election.
Thousands of the area’s residents have outstanding arrest warrants on smuggling and drug charges and locals have formed a committee to lobby for the bill and have warned that they will not back the established parties – including Amal and Hezbollah – if it isn’t sorted before May 6.
Alongside this, former General Security head Jamil al-Sayyed, who is running with the Hezbollah-Amal list, doesn’t have much local backing and voters have expressed unease at his attempt at entering the political scene.
If his apparent unpopularity is reflected in a lower turnout on election day, then this could hit the Shiite duo’s ability to hold onto the non-Shiite seats.
BEIRUT I: EAST BEIRUT
With what’s likely to be the lowest electoral threshold by votes in the country – 5,000 to 9,000 depending on turnout – East Beirut is a prime target for independents.
Kilna Watani is fielding a full slate here, hoping for a repeat of the 2016 municipal elections when residents favored a similar coalition of outsiders. (The Future Movement-backed list still won thanks to large support in West Beirut.)
Experts caution that national elections are not the same as local ones, raising doubt over whether Kilna Watani or the two other independent lists will be able to secure even one seat.
Michelle Tueni, the head of one of the independent tickets, scored a coup by recruiting Sebouh Mekhjian, the former head of MP Michel Pharaon’s political machine.
It is strongly thought that Mekhjian will draw a portion of Pharaon’s supporters, adding to Tueni’s votes while taking away from their competitors.
Not only is Pharaon heading one of the two mainstream lists, he’s also taking center stage in the biggest race of the district, directly pitting him against former Telecommunications Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui.
Both are competing for the sole Greek Catholic seat, meaning one of the two heavyweights will lose.
In a bizarre confluence of factors, an analysis by The Daily Star shows that a potential outcome could see a candidate with only a handful of votes – theoretically as low as zero – win the district’s parliamentary seat for Christian minorities.
BEIRUT II: WEST BEIRUT
Next door, another race will pit two mainstream lists against each other – one backed by Hariri and another by the Shiite duo.
Two other lists headed by prominent Sunni figures from Beirut will also look to earn seats for the first time in Parliament.
However, the district has turned into a maelstrom of lists with nine separate groups contesting the vote – the largest number of lists competing in any single district.
Previously sweeping the whole district under the winner-take-all electoral law, the Future Movement remains the favorite.
However, as many as five of 11 seats could still be stripped from Hariri’s party under the new proportional system.
Among the notable figures who stand a strong chance of winning is former MP Adnan Traboulsi, a candidate backed by the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, an Islamist group also know as Ahbash. He is running on the Hezbollah-Amal list alongside their Shiite candidates Amin Sharri and Mohammad Khawaja.
The Free Patriotic Movement is also endorsing candidate Edgar Traboulsi for a Protestant seat.
But the district has six Sunni seats, two Shiite seats, one Druze, one Orthodox and one Protestant seat up for grabs.
Hariri’s seat, the Druze and two Christian seats appear to be a set for his list.
Alongside Hariri, former Prime Minister Tammam Salam and current Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk are also favorites, while Future’s only female candidate Rola Tabsh Jaroudi could become the district’s sole female MP.
However, with Adnan Traboulsi likely to win a Sunni seat, the Future Movement will hope the two lists of Salah Salam, editor-in-chief of local daily Al-Liwaa, and Fouad Makhzoumi, a prominent businessman, will not garner enough votes to take places. If Salah Salam himself doesn’t take a Sunni seat, member of his list and current Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya MP Imad Hout could.