Focus: Parliamentary Election

Breaking Down the Rhetoric

Oct. 10, 2018

Lebanon is making strides in securing democracy, no matter the politics and rhetoric.

On May 6, 2018, Lebanon held its first parliamentary elections in nearly a decade. Since the 2009 elections, the country has faced several challenges: the influx of Syrian refugees, economic crisis, public debt of USD79 billion, crippling electricity shortage, and breakdown of waste management, to name a few. The 2018 iteration was Lebanon's first chance in several years to hold parliament accountable for its responses to these as well as new challenges.

The vote was postponed several times over concerns that it would ignite sectarian tensions already heightened by the Syrian war. After debating over electoral reforms for years, Lebanese lawmakers were finally able to pass a new law in 2017, replacing the previous law from 1960. The new law allows expats to vote for the first time, but of the 900,000 eligible expat voters, only 83,000 registered and few more than 50% voted in the election.
Another major highlight was the rise in the number of women candidates, making up nearly 10% as compared to a meager 1.7% in 2009. Hoping to crack Lebanon's political system, a record number of civil activists and independents ran for election. The new proportional representation model laid out a different parliamentary map as compared to past elections, reducing the number of electoral constituencies from 23 to 15. The new complex system allows voters to elect both a candidate in larger districts and sub-districts. Some Lebanese politicians pitched the new law, which replaced a winner-take-all-system, as a way to empower civil society groups to compete against political elites. However, the new law did not work out that way. Civil society challengers lost to traditional parties amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud. And, Christian parties and Hezbollah's coalition emerged stronger, while the Prime Minister's Future Movement lost some of its stronghold. Shortly after the election, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri replaced his chief of staff after his party lost more than a third of its seats. However, despite Future's losses, Hariri is still the frontrunner to form the next government as the Sunni Muslim leader with the biggest bloc in parliament—Lebanon's prime minister has to be a Sunni under its sectarian power sharing system.

Majority of close observers were not surprised by the election results, as traditional parties' greater access to money and media time created an unlevel playing field for new entrants. Perhaps, the game changer was the generation's old use of patronage networks by traditional parties to deploy their resources. According to recent surveys, the role of clientelism in Lebanon's political climate makes voting for patrons a social obligation. Moreover, a normal Lebanese voter's strong sectarian affinity makes it extremely hard for nonsectarian civil society groups to make a dent in the political arena.

On paper, the election strengthened Hezbollah, which won a slight majority with its allies, but Hezbollah itself gained the same number (13) of seats it won in the 2009 election. Importantly, political alliances shift frequently in Lebanon, and Hezbollah may not be able to keep all of its allies, especially the Free Patriotic Movement led by President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian.
Despite Hezbollah's gains in the election, the mainstream media's rhetoric that Hezbollah has taken over Lebanon is far from the truth as more than 50% of Lebanese people rejected Hezbollah and voted for parties who campaigned against foreign meddling.

For Lebanon's political elite, that 51% of registered voters stayed away from polling booths sent a clear message: Lebanon wants a system that provides a more democratic power sharing model—one that protects against manipulation by sectarian leaders and foreign interests. Though the most recent display of democracy is not perfect, peaceful elections in this region are becoming more and more the rule rather than the exception, and the rhetoric should not overshadow the progress for democracy.