By Eleanor Beevor
Hopes are high that Lebanon’s parliamentary systems are finally back on track. This small democracy has weathered four years of near-constant political stalemate. After President Michel Suleiman stepped down at the end of his term in May 2014, parliamentary in-fighting led to the post remaining empty for over two years. In the sectarian Lebanese parliament, a Maronite Christian must be President, a Sunni Muslim the Prime Minister, and a Shi’a Muslim must be Speaker. Finding a Maronite candidate to unite the disparate, and often heavily sectarian Lebanese political parties, turned into a very long struggle.
After over two years of deadlock, Saad Hariri, a former Prime Minister and leader of the Future Movement Party, threw his weight behind a candidate in October 2016. That was Michel Aoun, a Presidential candidate also backed by Hezbollah. Whilst it ended the political jam, it also sent shockwaves through Saudi Arabia. Hariri, himself a dual Saudi-Lebanese citizen with extensive business interests in Riyadh, was widely seen as a vector of Saudi foreign policy in Lebanon. His backing of Hezbollah’s man was perceived in Riyadh as a concession not only to the group itself, but to its erstwhile supporter and Saudi’s arch-nemesis, Iran. The move would come back to haunt Hariri later.
Lebanon still wasn’t out of a political headlock. The fragile coalition behind Aoun then had to pass a new electoral law to pave the way for the first parliamentary election since 2009. At last in June 2017 it managed to do so, and elections are scheduled for May 6th 2018. But another drama soon looked set to undo their work.
The consequences of Hariri’s support for Aoun, and the concession to Hezbollah that it represented, came back to bite in November 2017. What was meant to be an official visit to Riyadh for Hariri led to an apparent house arrest, and a shock broadcast in which he read a resignation speech being beamed back to Lebanon. It appeared that Riyadh hoped to stop Hezbollah further entrenching itself in parliament by ending Hariri’s career, and so the coalition.
A bold move by the Saudis to be sure, but not an effective one. Consensus in Lebanon and beyond was that the ambitious young Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman had overplayed his hand. The Lebanese didn’t believe the resignation speech was genuine, and were instead infuriated by such direct interference in their country. It led to an outcry of support for Hariri among his Sunni support base, and even a statement from Hezbollah defending him.
Hariri was home a few weeks later. He redacted his resignation and insisting that nothing had changed, for Lebanese relations with the Saudis or otherwise. He wished, he said, to put the incident behind him and move on with Lebanon’s future. And the next phase of that future is to be decided in the next few weeks
Campaigning is now underway for the May 6th election, with the new electoral system being road tested for the first time. The new law is a version of proportional representation, one that purports to better maintain Lebanon’s sectarian balance of representation. However, it brings with it certain costs.
Dr Raphael Lefèvre, an expert on Lebanon at the Middle East Centre at Oxford University, told Al Bawaba:
“Because of the change in the electoral system and the adoption of the "Sawt al-Tafdil", which is a mixed electoral system, alliances are less likely to be made on the basis of political programmes, and more likely to be made according to the strategic calculations of parties in specific constituencies. This means a great deal of incoherence in the way alliances are handled.”
Such an incoherence will not only have a cost for the future government, but also for parties during the campaign stage. However, some are more vulnerable than others, and Hariri’s Future Movement Party is particularly feeling the effects.
It seems that Hariri is desperate to shake off the impression of being Hezbollah’s enabler. Particularly in Beirut, Hariri has said that any Beiruti who stays home on election day is “serving the interest of Hezbollah”, and that the election was a choice between two agendas - those who would protect Beirut’s identity, and those who would seek to control it.
Whether he can distance himself from Hezbollah may indeed be a political lifeline for Hariri. Whilst Riyadh is unlikely to play with Lebanon so recklessly in the near-future, Hariri knows that he can’t afford to alienate Saudi Arabia too much. His business history in the Kingdom has left him vulnerable there. American support is also proving elusive now - both Prince Mohammed and the Trump administration reportedly see Lebanon as having been lost to Iranian influence. If he hopes to find favour in Washington, Hariri needs to push Hezbollah away. But the strength of his rhetoric is not matched by his position.
Dr Lefevre continued:
“The Future Movement does not have a clear politico-ideological line. Saad Hariri does not have a lot to show for his time in office: no significant job-heavy infrastructure project, no tangible results in the struggle against corruption, and not even the amnesty law that many Sunnis are asking for. The only electoral slogan he is left with is "If you don't vote for the Future Movement you vote for Hezbollah". This is especially because he faces intense competition from rival Sunni leaders, particularly in Tripoli where he will face a former Prime Minister, Najib Miqati, and a popular hawk, former Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi.
In this context, he hopes to raise the specter of Sunni fragmentation as a deterrent for people to vote for these two alternatives. But I wonder the extent to which it will be successful - Saad Hariri, after all, has made a lot of rhetorical and strategic concessions to Hezbollah in the past year, so he might not be best positioned to argue that his party will, if re-elected, be Hezbollah's No. 1 opponent.”
Still, the new electoral law is expected to shake things up for the other contenders. Hezbollah will have to find a message that resonates with voters beyond its Shi’a support base. Whilst it is widely thought that the group will expand its influence in the parliament to come, even some previously safe Hezbollah seats such as Baalbek-Hermel are set for competitive battles over the seats allocated to Christian and Sunni minorities.
The net result of the new electoral law is that the struggle for seats has become far more localized. Coalitions are being built by constituency rather than at a national level, with parties teaming up to compete for one set of seats in some areas, and opposing each other in others. Not only does this make predicting an eventual coalition government extremely difficult, but it could also hamper voter turnout. As parties fracture their messages to win at a regional level, voters risk being left with little sense of where their country as a whole will be headed.
The challenge for all parties now is to inspire the necessary faith at the micro-level, and still walk away with a clear message about Lebanon’s national future. If they are to succeed, Hariri and the Future Movement have a lot of work to do.
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