Lebanon finally held a parliamentary election, nine years after the last one and following several false starts over the past five years, but the results have not brought change to the country’s political status quo. The same old political elites continue to dominate Lebanon’s political scene, winning the vast majority of seats.
Turn out in this election was lower than in the previous one, standing at 49 percent. This signals a sense of popular ambivalence about the political process among most Lebanese, especially since the outgoing parliament renewed its own mandate twice unconstitutionally and since the elections that were meant to take place in 2013 kept being postponed under the pretext of lack of security. Parliament’s unconstitutional extensions have made a mockery of the concept of elections and reduced people’s faith in the political system.
This lack of faith hurt the prospects of independent candidates who, for the first time, contested the 2018 parliamentary elections in large numbers, running against the traditional parties. The major parties did not, for the most part, run on the basis of political platforms or issues of concern to Lebanese citizens. Instead, they ran on the basis of rallying people around personalities, as they had done in previous election rounds.
Several independent lists and coalitions contested seats all over Lebanon. However, only one candidate, the well-known television presenter Paulette Yacoubian, was declared a winner on the side of independents. Another independent, Joumana Haddad, came close to winning a seat, but lost by a narrow margin at the last minute, with her supporters framing her loss as the outcome of violations (Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) recorded thousands of violations in this election). This means that out of 128 seats, only one has been claimed by an independent.
That many independents contested the election illustrates the slow evolution of civil society in Lebanon. A few of those figures first came to public prominence during the 2005 Cedar Revolution, while others became known through their participation in the work of Beirut Madinati – the list of independents that emerged out of the anti-corruption public protests that gripped Lebanon in 2015 and contested municipal elections in 2016.
Although all but one independent candidate lost the seats they ran for in these parliamentary elections, their participation showed that Lebanon could have an alternative political class, which could, in turn, allow voters to have more faith in the political process and to cast their votes on the basis of issues rather than patronage networks and personalities.
The sad reality highlighted by the election is that these patronage networks and personalities continue to dominate the political scene, aided by an electoral law that works in their favour as it disregards the results of any electoral list that did not achieve a minimum threshold of votes. With independents not having the same resources that major political parties have, and with them not resorting to tactics like vote buying as has been the case with some of the traditional parties, independents had little chance of winning. This was not helped by how independents ran against one another on different lists in certain districts, splintering votes that could have gone to a streamlined independents’ list had they had a better-coordinated strategy.
In this way, the independents ended up further empowering the traditional political elites. But the elections showed that not all these elites are as comfortable as others. Crucially, while the Lebanese Forces almost doubled their number of parliamentarians in this election, the Future Movement lost a number of seats. This variation can be largely attributed to the two parties’ stance towards Hezbollah.
While the Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement were both part of the March 14 coalition that originally formed in 2005 in opposition to the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition, the Lebanese Forces have always been consistent in their stance against Hezbollah. The Future Movement, however, entered a relationship of convenience with Hezbollah and its ally the Free Patriotic Movement that allowed Future leader Saad Hariri to become prime minister in a cabinet dominated by Hezbollah and its allies.
In this election, Hariri stunned his supporters by asking them to vote for his “friend” Gibran Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. This move by Hariri has not just cost him dearly at the ballot box but has also served to further empower Hezbollah, which now, with its allies, has 67 out of the 128 parliamentary seats.
The most painful loss for Hariri was in one of Beirut’s electoral districts, where Sunni seats that used to be occupied by Future Movement MPs are now claimed by pro-Hezbollah winners. The immediate reaction to this shift has been skirmishes between supporters of the two camps after Hezbollah supporters provoked Hariri supporters by covering the statue of Saad Hariri’s late father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in downtown Beirut with the Hezbollah flag and chanting “Beirut has become Shia”.
This sectarian chant is a sign of things to come, as Hezbollah continues its rise as the most powerful political party in Lebanon, enabled by various intimidation tactics that included assault on Shia candidates running as independents in Hezbollah strongholds.
Lebanon emerges from this election with a small glimmer of hope represented by the lone independent candidate who managed to infiltrate the status quo. But the bigger picture is gloomy, with the only credible political bloc challenging Hezbollah in parliament being the Lebanese Forces, who can no longer count on Hariri as an ally, and therefore are limited in what they can achieve.
The many uncomfortable bedfellows who formed joint lists in this election on a tit-for-tat basis, such as that of the Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement, are a reminder that the biggest winner in the Lebanese election is its corrupt status quo.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.