BEIRUT: Unlike previous elections, Lebanon’s long-established political parties are facing a tough challenge in the upcoming legislative elections from independent newcomers who hope to get elected to the next Parliament as a result of the new proportional vote law, adopted for the first time in the country’s history. Lebanon’s general elections, the first in nine years and slated for May 6, promise to be fiercely contested as rival political factions and blocs struggle to forge electoral alliances aimed at securing enough parliamentary seats to form a majority in the 128-member legislature.
The country has seen a surge in political and media campaigns and posturing by various groups in recent weeks as the electoral race moved into high gear, amid expectations that preparations for the polls would dominate the political landscape from now until May 6, sidelining other important issues – such as the endorsement of the 2018 draft state budget and the implementation of the government’s plans to resolve the long-festering trash crisis and the chronic electricity problem.
Similarly, social media, mainly Facebook and Twitter, will be used for the first time by opposing politicians and candidates either to drum up popular support or vilify each other as the electoral battle appears to heat up.
“This year’s elections will pose a challenge to major political parties which fear the risk of losing some parliamentary seats to independent candidates emboldened by the new proportional representation system,” a political source told The Daily Star.
“Likewise, the shift in political alliances and the realignment of forces are bound to leave far-reaching effects on the results of the elections.”
Established and traditional parties are set to be confronted by a coalition of independent newcomers and candidates from civil society groups running on a non-confessional platform and claiming to offering voters a choice not defined by sectarianism, nepotism or clientelism.
Civil society groups have gained public support in the past two years, mainly for their active role, including in street protests, in exposing the failure of the entire political class’ to deal with the trash crisis, the electricity problem and to fight rampant corruption in the public administration.
Under the new law, the number of seats earned will be proportional to the percentage of votes won by a party, meaning all sides will see a decrease in seats. It is likely, therefore, that the elections will see parties aligned in one district, while competing with each other in another.
Some of the established parties will seek to exploit the elections to reassert their popularity and influence, while others want to use the democratic event to bring out change in the sectarian-based ruling system that, in the eyes of many politicians, has proved to be dysfunctional in addressing deep-rooted political and socio-economic problems.
The future for Future?
Prime Minister Saad Hariri was one of the top leaders to have acknowledged that the elections are presenting his Future Movement, the long-standing undisputed representative of the Sunni community, with “a great challenge” under the new vote law, which might give his Sunni opponents a chance to undercut or downsize his bloc, the largest in Parliament, currently comprising 34 lawmakers.
In a keynote speech during a Future rally at Beirut’s BIEL complex last week commemorating the 13th anniversary of the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the premier said the upcoming elections would represent “a turning point in our parliamentary life.”
“Some say the Future Movement will lose because they are bankrupt and don’t have money. This is an insult to you and the supporters of Rafik Hariri because it means Future Movement votes are bought and sold and you aren’t free to vote,” Hariri said. “Is this the challenge? We want the challenge. I and every one of you have accepted the challenge. Yes, we don’t have money for the elections.”
Launching the Future Movement’s electoral campaign under the slogan of rejecting any alliance with Hezbollah, with whom Hariri has long been at loggerheads on key domestic and regional issues, namely the party’s arsenal and its deep involvement in the 7-year-old war in Syria, he said: “We reject any [electoral] alliance with Hezbollah.”
Hariri’s speech was viewed by political analysts as an attempt to rally his supporters by highlighting that the Future Movement’s major political confrontation at the elections will be with Hezbollah.
New groups, new faces
The speech came a day after Speaker Nabih Berri said: “The elections will be crucial.” Berri did not elaborate, but pollsters and political analysts said that the elections would lead to the emergence of “new political groups” and “new faces” in the legislature as a result of the proportional vote law.
In fact, Labor Minister Mohammad Kabbara, who belongs to the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc, warned that as a result of the new vote law, the elections might lead to a weakening of the Sunnis’ position in governance and also to an undermining of the Taif Accord.
“The law under which the elections will be held is directly targeting the Sunnis. While it [the law] consecrates the Christian, Shiite and Druze points of reference, it leads to splitting the Sunni ranks in Lebanon to destroy their political authority and weaken their position in the system of governance in order to facilitate later the abrogation of the Taif Accord,” Kabbara said during meetings with supporters in the northern city of Tripoli last week.
“The significance of the new vote law is that it gives the chance to anyone who has a popular base to be represented in Parliament,” Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said in a televised speech Friday.
Nasrallah confirmed Hezbollah’s permanent electoral coalition with the Amal Movement in districts throughout Lebanon amid wide expectations that the two leading Shiite parties would grab most if not all of the 27 parliamentary seats allotted for the Shiite sect.
Although he also reaffirmed Hezbollah’s “firm and steadfast political alliance” with the Free Patriotic Movement, founded by President Michel Aoun, Nasrallah acknowledged that the two parties might contest the elections in joint tickets in some districts while battling each other in other districts.
This also applies to the two main Christian parties, the FPM and the Lebanese Forces, which, despite their 2016 political understanding, have declared that they might align in some districts and compete in others.
‘On the right democratic track’
The elections, Lebanon’s first since 2009, will be held under the new vote law based on proportional representation – with Lebanon divided into 15 electoral districts – that was ratified by Parliament on June 16 last year.
Replacing the controversial 1960 majoritarian system used in the 2009 elections, the law allows Lebanese nationals living overseas to vote for the first time. Over 90,000 Lebanese expatriates have registered to vote.
The past few days saw strong confirmation from senior officials that the elections would be held on time, allaying fears of another postponement or a new extension of Parliament’s mandate, which has been extended three times since 2013.
A few days after Aoun signed a decree officially setting election day as May 6, the Interior Ministry began receiving applications from people wishing to register their candidacy for the polls.
Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said the launch of candidacy registration and political campaigns served as the “most profound response” to skeptics and provided practical confirmation that the vote would take place on the “constitutional date.”
“‘Lebanon Elects – 2018’ will not be just a slogan, but it will be turned into reality, truth and action to revive democracy in the veins of the Lebanese body,” Machnouk said in a speech marking the start of the period for candidates to register, which began on Feb. 5 and ends at midnight on March 6.
“Lebanon has been placed on the right democratic track.”
Apprehensive of a possible negative impact of the new law on their power base, both Machnouk, a key figure in the Future Movement, and Hariri have urged Future supporters to participate in the voting, saying every vote will make a difference.
“Today, we are facing a great challenge. These elections are not like other elections that took place in the past. We cannot say, ‘Why do we have to go and vote since the list will win anyway?’ In these elections, one single vote may make a difference. This is why the challenge is great,” Hariri told a delegation of Beiruti families earlier this month as part of his intensified meetings with Future supporters ahead of the elections.
“Some may think that this law will somehow reduce the importance of the Future Movement, but we have the ballot boxes to prove otherwise. ... The larger the voting, the larger our chances to win,” he added.
A chance for change?
The LF and the Kataeb Party have pleaded with their supporters to participate in the vote to bring about change and build a new Lebanon.
LF chief Samir Geagea said the elections should mark “a white [peaceful] revolution” in Lebanese politics. “Elections this year are not just a normal practice of democracy, but they should be a white revolution against all traditional policies,” Geagea told supporters at the party’s headquarters in the Kesrouan town of Maarab earlier this month.
“The fate of all of us for the next four years is on the ballot.”
An outspoken critic of Hezbollah’s weapons and its regional agenda, Geagea added: “Our project is clear and it is to build a strong and powerful state, and we have proved that we can do that.”
Kataeb Party chief MP Sami Gemayel has also unleashed his party’s electoral campaign by urging the Lebanese to seek change when they vote in the elections.
“I call on the Lebanese to be a pulse of real change on May 6. Be a pulse of the republic, the people and the youth and the pulse of tomorrow on May 6 so that Lebanon can be revitalized,” Gemayel told supporters during a party rally at Forum de Beyrouth earlier this month.
“For us, the elections are an opportunity for all the Lebanese to build a new Lebanon. This is an opportunity to say ‘No’ to this performance.”
The Hezbollah factor
Meanwhile, Western countries, which have repeatedly expressed their support for Lebanon’s stability and security, were reported to have voiced concerns over the possibility of Hezbollah and its allies gaining a comfortable majority in the next Parliament – a development, if it materialized, that would further bolster the party’s growing political role in the country.
Asked to comment on some politicians who say that Hezbollah and its allies would muster an overwhelming majority in Parliament under the new proportional vote law, Berri said on Feb. 4: “Who doesn’t like to win? We wish to win and inshallah, we will win. We will resort to the game of elections.”
But a Hezbollah member of the Lebanese government scoffed at the argument that the party would be able to control the next Parliament as a result of the new vote law.
“Any talk that the [new] electoral law will give Hezbollah a chance to control Parliament is provocative because anyone who reads the law well and sees how [electoral] alliances are made and how the country is run will find out that no group can alone control [Parliament], especially since our country cannot be governed by one side, be it political, confessional or sectarian,” Youth and Sports Minister Mohammad Fneish, one of two Hezbollah ministers, told a party gathering in the southern city of Tyre earlier this month.
This was further backed up by Nasrallah, who said in his speech Friday: “To say that Hezbollah wants to gain a majority in Parliament is not true. Such talk is aimed at intimidating some countries in order to gain support from them. The reason could also be to exert pressure to amend the electoral law or to exert further pressure on Hezbollah. There is no political party in Lebanon that can gain a majority in Parliament.”
“The [political] setup of this country is based on partnership,” he said.
It is no secret that the United States and its Arab Gulf allies, which consider Hezbollah a “terrorist organization,” are worried about the prospects of the Iranian-backed Shiite Party and its allies gaining a majority in the next Parliament.
During his one-day visit to Beirut last week as part of a regional tour, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reported to have also discussed Hezbollah’s growing role in Lebanon ahead of the vote, with top leaders. He said the Lebanese should be concerned about the group’s actions and growing arsenal.
The top U.S. diplomat also reiterated Washington’s long-standing policy that it makes no distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military wings, in an apparent reversal from comments he made the day before in Jordan, in which he said it was a reality that Hezbollah was part of the political process in Lebanon.
“Hezbollah is not just a concern for the United States. The people of Lebanon should also be concerned about how Hezbollah’s actions, its growing arsenal, bring unwanted and unhelpful scrutiny on Lebanon,” Tillerson said, speaking at a joint news conference with Hariri at the Grand Serail. “Hezbollah’s entanglement in regional conflicts threatens the security of Lebanon and has destabilizing effects on the region.”
Lebanon’s elections come amid intensified U.S. sanctions on Hezbollah, in a calculated campaign aimed at drying up the group’s financial resources.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration hit six individuals and seven businesses allegedly linked to Hezbollah with terror sanctions, calling it “the first wave” in a pressure campaign that will escalate throughout the year. The U.S. has hit Hezbollah with sanctions before.
“We will be relentless in identifying, exposing, and dismantling Hezbollah’s financial support networks globally,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said following the latest sanctions.
Formed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 1982 to fight Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah has morphed into a powerful political player in Lebanon, running its own media and communication channels and providing public services to followers in its strongholds in Beirut’s southern suburbs, the Bekaa region and the south.
Bolstered by a massive arsenal of long-range missiles that can hit any civilian or military target in Israel, Hezbollah has threatened to strike back at the Jewish state if it attacks Lebanon.