Lebanon is heading for its first parliamentary elections in nine years.
On May 6, more than 3.6 million registered voters in the country will be eligible to choose among 583 candidates competing for 128 parliamentary seats.
The candidates are spread across 77 lists in 15 districts, which have 27 subdistricts.
For Lebanese nationals living abroad, some polls opened on April 27. Already, almost 66 percent of 12,615 registered voters living in six Arab countries have cast their ballots, marking a first in Lebanese history, according to state-run National News Agency (NNA).
Overseas voting in the six countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman) was followed on April 29 by voting in 33 countries in the Americas, Europe, Australia and Africa. Official figures put the total number of registered Lebanese expatriate voters at 82,965 worldwide.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil wrote on Twitter that he was “very proud” to witness the first Lebanese expat voting abroad in the country’s history.
“It marks the beginning of a track that will not stop until the return of all Lebanese to their country,” he posted, as he followed the voting on screen at the foreign ministry.
Results from the overseas voting will only be published after the closure of polls on May 6. President Michel Aoun has requested a public holiday from May 4 to 8 to “facilitate the electoral process” since many schools will be used as polling stations.
These elections will be the first after nearly a decade of turbulent politics. Since 2009, the Lebanese have watched their government collapse twice (in 2011 and 2013 ), the presidency sit vacant for 29 months (from 2014 to 2016), and their parliament extend its mandate several times.
Lebanon’s current political system was created after a 15-year civil war that ended with the Saudi-negotiated Taif Accord in 1989. Under its terms, the parliament’s 128 seats were equally divided among Muslims and Christians, reinforcing the formula of 1943’s National Pact, which stipulated that the country’s president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.
The country’s fragile, sect-based political balance was rendered even more complex by the assassination of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.
Hariri’s death inspired a grassroots movement called the Cedar Revolution, which held the Syrian government responsible and called for the end of Syria’s 29-year military occupation of Lebanon. Two major protests in the country’s capital, Beirut, marked a split of the political arena into two broad camps: the pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc and the anti-Syrian, Western and Saudi-backed March 14 bloc. This split has polarised the country’s politics ever since, albeit with frequent fissures and the lapse – at least officially – of the March 14 bloc.
In the Lebanese parliament, half the seats – 64 – are allocated to Muslim candidates and half to Christians.
The same legislature has been in place since 2009.
General Michel Aoun ascended to the presidency in 2016.
The position had remained vacant for two years; Michel Suleiman, the previous president, left office after his term expired in 2014.
Saad Hariri has served as prime minister twice: from 2009 to 2011 and from December 2016 to now.
Late last year, in a bizarre episode, Hariri abruptly announced his resignation during a trip to Saudi Arabia, only to withdraw it and announce his renewed commitment to Lebanon’s policy of “dissociation” from regional affairs upon returning to the country shortly after.
What’s different from the 2009 elections?
A new electoral law: Since 2009, parliament extended its term several times, once due to a stalemate over electoral reform that threatened to leave the country without a legislature altogether.
Most political parties agreed on the need to reform the former law – a majoritarian voting system often referred to as the “1960 law” – but disagreed over what system should replace it.
The May 6 elections will be putting a new and contentious electoral law, finally passed in June 2017, to the test.
The new legislation reduces Lebanon’s number of districts and introduces proportional representation, but adds some complicated elements to the voting process.
According to this law, seats will be allocated proportionally according to candidate lists. Seventy-seven lists were formed by multiple parties in a tangled web of contradictory alliances – which may disrupt the domination of the March 8 and March 14 blocs.
Each ballot will also include a preferential vote, or “sawt tafdili”, a compromise that preserved Lebanon’s winner-takes-all system and broke with most proportional models.
Essentially, voters will cast two votes on their ballot: one for a candidate list, which may include multiple parties, and one for their favourite candidate from within that list.
Analysts observing the election cycle expressed mixed speculations over the new law’s influence on voter turnout.
Lebanon has a long history of vibrant civil society and grassroots associations, which can be traced back to the Ottoman era.
But since the participation of underground university clubs in 2005’s Cedar Revolution, youth activism “gradually merged into a sociopolitical movement” that attracted actors from “inside and outside the mainstream parties and groups”, wrote Zeina el-Helou, a researcher and activist, in a recently published study.
The 2015 rubbish crisis, when rubbish was piled high on Beirut’s streets, thrust youth activist groups into the limelight. Movements like YouStink! and We Want Accountability made worldwide headlines as they protested the government’s inability to manage the country’s waste, marking a milestone in Lebanon’s contemporary history of political activism.
Civil engagement in the political scene gained more momentum when a group of young activists and professionals, calling themselves “Beirut Madinati” (Arabic for “Beirut is my city”), secured thousands of votes in municipal elections in 2016.
Beirut Madinati ran on an “anti-establishment” platform, breaking from the traditional kinship political structure of parties tied to specific sects and the service-based patronage network.
Beirut Madinati’s ability to generate buzz over a seemingly dull affair – municipal and syndicate elections – did not materialise into electoral success. But it did illustrate the power of outsider status and messaging, reflected in the strategies of multiple activist groups, parties and alliances this electoral cycle.
Fragile economy: Lebanon faces a fiscal deficit of 10 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), a current account deficit of more than 20 percent and feeble real GDP growth, according to an International Monetary Fund statement issued earlier this year.
Already one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, with a public debt estimated at 150 percent of GDP, or $79bn, Lebanon received international pledges of over $11bn in soft loans and grants during a recent investment summit in Paris, raising hopes of kick-starting its precarious economy and infrastructure.
Power outages: The Lebanese have had to endure daily power outages for almost two decades, caused by a mix of politics and skyrocketing demand for electricity. The country saw its power plants destroyed during the civil war (1975 to 1990), and again in several attacks by Israel.
Chronic power outages mean many municipalities are not able to supply water to homes and business as well, pushing residents to rely on backup generators provided by a network of private owners, referred to by many as “the Mafia”. The government has yet to put an end to electricity rationing, which has long been its de facto approach.
Rubbish: Massive protests followed the closure of Naameh, Beirut’s main landfill, in 2015 when it passed its capacity. The protests ended after the government established waste-treatment facilities and reopened two closed landfills. But that was not enough, and piles of rubbish clogged Beirut’s streets in 2016 and 2017. Some of the rubbish made its way into Lebanon’s rivers and washed ashore on beaches. The government has yet to find a permanent solution.
Refugees: With an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, according to Lebanese official numbers, Lebanon has the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. The presence of so many Syrian refugees, coupled with a troubled history between Beirut and Damascus, has driven a surge in anti-refugee rhetoric, with political leaders increasingly blaming refugees for stalled development and bad infrastructure.
Corruption: Deeply rooted patronage networks, a legacy of the civil war, govern most aspects of life in Lebanon, from securing a job to being granted a hospital bed. The country was ranked 143 out of 180 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index of 2017.
Regional affairs: Despite renewed statements by Lebanese officials claiming commitment to its policy of dissociation from regional conflicts, several countries exert a strong influence over local allies and proxies. Hezbollah, the country’s largest Shia political party and paramilitary force backed by Iran, has been a key player in the Syrian civil war since its onset, threatening Lebanon’s internal stability at times and intensifying tensions with Israel. Hariri and his Future Movement party are backed by Saudi Arabia, although it allegedly compelled the prime minister to announce his resignation late last year in a seeming bid to curb Iran’s influence.
Security: Several suicide bombings and attacks have shaken the country in recent years, but in late August 2017, Aoun declared “victory” over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), after the group infiltrated the border region of Arsal in 2014. After a multi-pronged military campaign against ISIL, a ceasefire agreement resulted in the transport of nearly 600 fighters and their families to the border regions of Syria and Iraq.
Based on a recent report by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung mapping political parties participating in the 2018 elections, and several analysts who spoke to Al Jazeera, the following, though not exhaustive, represents a consensus view of Lebanon’s political scene.
THE KEY PLAYERS
Future Movement (FM): The Future Movement was founded by the late Rafik Hariri in the mid-1990s and is now led by his son and current prime minister, Saad. The FM, officially registered as a non-sectarian party, is the most popular party among the country’s Sunni population. It won the biggest parliamentary bloc both in 2005 and 2009 legislative elections and played a leading role in the March 14 camp.
Free Patriotic Movement (FPM): The Free Patriotic Movement, a Maronite Christian-majority party, commonly known as the Aounist party, became official in 2006 after Aoun, the current president, returned from exile in France. In February 2006, the FPM signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah, a Shia-majority party – and the two remain allied to this day. FPM is headed by Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, the current foreign affairs minister.
Hezbollah: Founded with Iran’s support in the 1980s, Hezbollah is both a paramilitary force and political party and currently sits in parliament. Headed by Hassan Nasrallah, it leads the pro-Syria March 8 bloc. The party’s armed wing, currently fighting alongside the Syrian government, forced the withdrawal of the Israeli army from southern Lebanon in 2000 and fought it again in 2006.
Progressive Socialist Party (PSP): Founded in 1949 by Kamal Jumblatt, the Progressive Socialist Party is headed by Walid Jumblatt, a Druze leader known for his propensity for shifting loyalties – pro-Damascus at one point, he now supports the Syrian opposition. Walid Jumblatt’s son, Taymour, is heading PSP’s parliamentary electoral bid for the first time this year.
Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Tashnag): Founded in 1890 to defend the Armenian people against the Ottoman authorities, Tashnaq has been a part of Lebanese parliament since 1942. Headed by Secretary-General Hagop Pakradounian, it is the largest party representing Lebanese of Armenian descent, competing in the Armenian-Lebanese community with the Social Democrat Hunchakian Party and Ramgavar Party.
Amal Movement: The party was founded by Imam Moussa al-Sadr in 1974 to unite the Shia, end the marginalisation of Shia areas, and resist Israeli aggression. Party leadership passed to current Speaker of the House Nabih Berri in 1980, following al-Sadr’s mysterious disappearance in Libya in 1978. The Amal movement is in the March 8 bloc, despite critical differences with FPM.
Kataeb Party: Formed in 1936 by Pierre Gemayel as a Christian nationalist youth movement, Kataeb became an official party in 1952. By the 1970s, it was one of Lebanon’s most established political parties. A family-dominated party, it is today headed by Sami Gemayel, grandson of Pierre, and is in the opposition.
The Lebanese Forces (LF): President Bashir Gemayel founded the Lebanese Forces in 1976 as the military wing of the majority-Christian parties. At the time called “the Lebanese Front”, its main rival was the Lebanese National Movement, an alliance of mainly socialist and Arabist militias backed by the Palestine Liberation Organization during the war. Following Gemayel’s assassination, Samir Geagea took over, dissolved the Lebanese Front and rebranded it as a political party under the name of the Lebanese Forces. Today, it is one of the largest Christian parties and a close ally of FM.
Lebanese Democratic Party (LDP): The Lebanese Democratic Party was founded in 2001 by Minister of the Displaced Talal Arslan. The LDP is considered the PSP’s main rival in the Druze community.
National Liberal Party (NLP): Founded by late President Camille Chamoun in 1958, the NLP mostly attracts supporters of the Maronite community from the Chouf region.
Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP): Founded by Antoine Saadeh in 1932, the party has long advocated for unifying “Greater Syria” or the “Fertile Crescent”, comprising Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus. The party, headed today by Assaad Hardan, is allied with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.
Marada Movement: A Christian political party founded by the late President Suleiman Franjiyeh in 1967 and currently headed by MP Suleiman Franjieh Jr. (the founder’s grandson). Marada was part of the Lebanese Front until 1978 and is aligned with FPM, Hezbollah and the al-Assad family in Syria.
Tahalouf Watani: Earlier this year, 11 groups announced the formation of a coalition called “Tahalouf Watani”, (Arabic for “The My Nation Coalition”) which is fielding a list of 66 candidates under the name “Kollouna Watani” (Arabic for “We Are the Nation”). The candidates are mainly activists, professionals and academics from civil society and grassroots movements who are running on lists in nine out of the 15 constituencies.