Lebanon had its first election in nine years on Sunday. It went relatively smoothly. Turnout was low and many appeared apathetic because old party bosses still dominate the sectarian quota system that underpins Lebanese politics. Christians, Sunnis, Shi’ites, Druze and members of other religions voted for reserved candidates, guaranteeing that much of the legislature remains the same and that patronage systems dominate. However there were some surprises. Here are six of the most important.
1. Hezbollah’s allies triumphed, but Hezbollah did not
There have been many reports that Hezbollah “won” the election and that its candidates swept the parliament. The reality is that Hezbollah likely gained only one seat. Hezbollah has 11 seats in the current parliament and will likely have 12 or 13 after the vote. Its Shi’ite allies in the Amal movement will maintain their level of representation. The real winner was Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. Together this alliance may get more than 60 seats in the 128-member parliament. That would be a major victory.
It is a victory for Hezbollah but it is far from the “Hezbollah swept the election” story that some are putting forward. Hezbollah is only stronger after the election because its allies are stronger. The question is whether its allies will bend to its demands.2. Has patriarchy defeated the handful of women in parliament?
Only seven or eight women are expected to be elected to parliament. Most lists include female candidates but women are deeply underrepresented in Lebanon. In fact Lebanon is one of the worst parliaments in the world in terms of women in government. It ranked at No. 183 before the election, with only 3% of seats held by women. Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey all have better track records. This is strange considering that Lebanon is ostensibly a more liberal and progressive society.
However, a record number ran in the 2018 election. Of the 587 candidates, 86 were women. Women are harmed by Hezbollah’s record of patriarchy. The party didn’t field a single female candidate.
3. Protests against fraud at Interior Ministry
A civil society list of candidates appeared to triumph in Beirut on Sunday night. Joumana Haddad and Paula Yacoubian reportedly both won seats in parliament. This was an important victory because Haddad is openly atheist and would be the only open atheist in parliament. However, the results that came in on Monday showed that the Free Patriotic Movement’s Antoine Panos had taken the seat that Haddad had supposedly won. This led to uncertainty and protests in the afternoon.
With claims of fraud in the air, hundreds protested at the Interior Ministry in Beirut. Haddad put out a statement saying there were more than 7,000 violations reported during the election, which pointed to fears the votes had been manipulated.4. Saad Hariri loses
Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, which had 29 seats in the outgoing parliament, is heading for a disastrous defeat. Hariri was the center of controversy last year
when he flew to Saudi Arabia and resigned as prime minister, only to return to Lebanon and remain in office. His party is estimated to receive only 21 seats. This is a major setback for Saudi Arabia, which is a key ally of Hariri. Hariri’s father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri was murdered in 2005, allegedly by Hezbollah. As the leader of many Lebanese Sunnis, Saad Hariri is seen as one of the only bulwarks against Hezbollah’s influence on the country. He is also seen as pro-Western. Now that his party has been weakened, it is unclear if the veneer of Lebanon being a “Western ally” will remain.5. Samir Geagea
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea’s party appears to have nearly doubled its representation in parliament, from nine to 16. Geagea, a former head of a powerful militia during the civil war, was arrested in 1994 and imprisoned for 11 years. He spent many years in solitary confinement but received an amnesty in 2005 following the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.
Since then he has been a main ally of the Hariri-led March 14 Alliance. As such he is a counterweight to President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah’s allies. However, the days when the Lebanese Forces were an armed force like Hezbollah are over and they do not present any real counterweight to Hezbollah’s armed activity in Lebanon.6. Lebanon: Divided and more extreme
The strengthening of Hezbollah’s allies shows that Lebanese certainly have not embraced a new path forward. This is partly the fault of their sectarian system that locks Shi’ites into voting for Shi’ite candidates, Christians for Christian candidates, and so on. But there is no reason that Hezbollah and Amal must have a lock on all the Shi’ite seats. There could be a civil society initiative for them as well, as there is in Beirut.
The reality is that regardless of the liberalism of Beirut, Hezbollah is popular in the south and other areas. Its role in Syria and in other conflicts appears controversial, but it also brings pride to some Lebanese who see it as a shield against Sunni jihadists.
The weakening of Hariri and strengthening of Geagea appears to show that the country is more divided than before. Similarly the failure of Haddad to win a seat and the general failure of outsider candidates to win even scraps at the table shows that the country has not taken advantage of the opportunity after nine years without an election to change things. Voter turnout illustrated this. Despite almost a decade without an election, many were not hungry to go to the polls.
Now Lebanon will once again be plunged into the international arena as Israel, Iran and others seek to exploit the results or condemn them for their own reasons.