Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, held on May 15, 2022, were the first chance to understand where Lebanese voters stand on a number of important issues since the popular uprising of October 2019. These included the traditional political establishment, the question of Hezbollah’s position in the country, and the newly formed opposition lists seeking to enter parliament for the first time. The elections also presented a chance to determine the size of various political parties ahead of the presidential election at the end of October and in the event of a national conference held under regional and international patronage in order to discuss changes to the political system and resolutions to contentious issues.
Assessing the results of the elections depends on which lens was used to approach them in the first place. Two angles stand out, that of the discourse of change and revolution that has fermented in the country since 2019 and that of Hezbollah’s and its allies’ ability to maintain their majority in parliament (a dominant headline in most international coverage of the elections). Another important consideration is that of the key issues awaiting the new parliament as it takes over from the current one whose mandate began in 2018.
“Vote Them Out” – Has the Manzoumeh Been Defeated?
From the perspective of the October 2019 popular uprising’s all-encompassing slogan “everyone means everyone [needs to go]” and the political formations that emerged in its aftermath, the result is two-pronged.
The traditional political establishment was arguably punished by voters, in part by the relatively low national turnout of 41 percent. But this was not enough to cause a major reshuffling that may help the formation of a government capable of enacting the long-awaited reforms needed to kick-start an economic recovery plan that wins the trust of the people and the international community. In brief, the establishment (manzoumeh) survived the historic economic collapse with some gains and losses, depending on the different electoral districts.
The traditional political establishment was arguably punished by voters, in part by the relatively low national turnout of 41 percent.
The establishment against which the new forces for change revolted was primarily a “club of six” that included (along with smaller parties) Hezbollah, Amal, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the Lebanese Forces (LF), the Progressive Socialist Party, and the Future Movement (FM). The latter is the only party absent from the new parliament—although eight seats were won by former members who will likely remain close to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri after his decision to suspend his political role. Questions remain as to what the overall score would have been had FM run in 2022 and the extent of its impact on the turnout, especially in predominantly Sunni districts.
It is clear at this stage that the establishment was merely weakened in some districts but was re-legitimized in the country as results show that it maintains the majority of seats in parliament (composed of reelected incumbents and new members in smaller parties and independent figures close to the manzoumeh). To be sure, any chance of a seismic change (i.e., “vote them out” in the traditional understanding of the term) in the political landscape from a macro level was not achieved in this round of elections.
A more thorough examination of the newcomers, their programs, and their positioning in the coming weeks is needed to have a better idea if they will coalesce under one parliamentary bloc.
Nevertheless, there was a very important victory with the breakthrough of 13 opposition candidates who may act as a parliamentary bloc able to challenge the establishment from within if they agree on common principles and a clear roadmap. A more thorough examination of the newcomers, their programs, and their positioning in the coming weeks is needed to have a better idea if they will coalesce under one parliamentary bloc. It is also important to know if their stances on key economic issues will satisfy the expectations of their supporters who are demanding strong voices in parliament to defend their interests as Lebanon suffers from economic collapse and the breakdown of the health, education, and banking sectors, among others.
Referendum on Hezbollah’s Weapons?
For those who viewed the elections as a referendum on the Hezbollah question in the country, there is no doubt that there is an important shift in the popular mood from 2018. If Hezbollah entered the new parliament in 2018 with renewed confidence in its stature nationally after achieving a clear majority with its allies, the outlook is different in 2022. Hezbollah and Amal maintain a clear majority and representation of the Shia community in the country, but they suffered three setbacks.
The first was the victory of two opposition candidates in the South 3 electoral district who defeated the pro-Syrian regime incumbent Asaad Hardan and banker Marwan Khaireddine, both important and symbolic achievements. The second was the loss of the overall majority in parliament from 71 seats in 2018 to 62 this time around, out of a total of 128. However, losing a majority will not fundamentally alter the political landscape, especially that no other coalition won an outright majority in 2022. Hezbollah and Amal and their allies will continue to be essential domestic players for a successful government formation process as well as for major decisions in government and parliament that require a two-thirds quorum. For example, the duo had caused a standoff with Judge Tarek Bitar who is investigating the August 2020 Beirut Port explosion by temporarily suspending the participation of their Shia ministers in cabinet meetings, thus raising questions about the legitimacy of the government given how the constitution has been interpreted in practice on this issue since 2007. This will likely remain a pressure tactic that is not related to a parliamentary majority or minority.
Losing a majority will not fundamentally alter the political landscape, especially that no other coalition won an outright majority in 2022.
The third setback is the fact that for the first time since 2005, Hezbollah no longer has the largest Christian party as their ally giving them a “Christian cover” during the past 16 years since the Mar Mikhail Agreement with Michel Aoun’s FPM, currently led by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil. Early results and analysis showed an electoral tsunami for LF, but it later appeared to put the FPM (17 seats) and the LF (19 seats) on an almost equal footing with an advantage for the latter. An assessment of Christian votes on a national level to draw more conclusions is still required. Furthermore, it is still unclear how the two opposing parliamentary blocs will be formed and whom the other parties and independents will join. While the results were expected to deal a major blow to the FPM and they did not, the fact remains that the anti-Hezbollah LF leader Samir Geagea will be a stronger player in the political scene for the next four years, and especially in the negotiations preceding the presidential election next October.
Beyond the purely Christian vote dimension, Hezbollah will also potentially need to deal with a government and parliament that may insist on putting the contentious question of its weapons (al-silah) on the table, basically dealing a blow to the long-adopted formula of “army-people-resistance” that gave them state legitimacy. The extent of this shift will be clearer as demands are voiced and conditions set by various political parties during the government formation process which is expected to be the usual laborious practice that may not materialize before the presidential election.
The parliamentary elections were an important victory for the anti-Hezbollah bloc that managed to snatch away its majority (with allies) in parliament, albeit without gaining a majority themselves.
Thus, from this perspective, the parliamentary elections were an important victory for the anti-Hezbollah bloc that managed to snatch away its majority (with allies) in parliament, albeit without gaining a majority themselves. The victory was not decisive enough given that the FPM maintained a solid presence, along with Suleiman Frangieh’s Marada, another Christian faction, and the Armenian party Tashnaq, that will continue to provide the party with Christian allies.
In brief, Hezbollah now has to deal with an “unfriendly” parliament. This will necessitate a (hopefully) serious reflection phase by Hezbollah to help find a solution that will be an acceptable compromise for all Lebanese parties, taking into account the need to protect Lebanon from Israeli aggression, ensure full state sovereignty over all of its territories, and assure non-interference in external armed conflicts similar to Syria’s. However, realistically, this will most likely be the start of further polarization on this issue that will feed on so-called “existential” concerns and will be fueled by the always-ready sectarian discourse to maintain Lebanon in a state of political paralysis and vacuum, especially as the thorny issues of government formation and presidential elections loom near.
What Comes Next?
Four big and thorny issues and questions with no easy answers await Lebanon’s new parliament: who will be the prime minister-designate assigned with the difficult task of forming a new government? What will be the shape of said government? Who will be the next Speaker of Parliament? Whom will parliament elect as president of the republic for the next six years?
Due to Saad Hariri’s current retirement from political life, one of the major changes in the 2022 parliament is an absence of a clear majority leader for the Sunni political parties. Based on election results, Hariri’s withdrawal has helped disperse the Sunni vote among various small blocs and independent figures with no clear frontrunner for the position of prime minister. There may be calls from various blocs for a Sunni candidate from outside the usual names—for example, Nawaf Salam, former ambassador to the United Nations—but the fact remains that such a figure would need to at least have a moderate consensus around him from all the main political players. This may lead to the re-designation of current Premier Najib Miqati to form the new government which will raise questions as to what change in fact happened if he keeps his pre-elections position.
Current Premier Najib Miqati may still form the new government which will raise questions as to what change in fact happened if he keeps his pre-elections position.
The second and thornier issue is the shape of such a government. Lebanon’s complex political scene usually ends up with a formation of a national unity government or a long period of political vacuum awaiting a compromise settlement. Given the economic situation and the need to move ahead quickly on needed reforms and a recovery plan, the Lebanese people do not have the luxury of waiting. Any pro-change demands for a new way of forming governments and going toward a loyalist-opposition (majority-minority) system will take time and will be met with claims that cabinets are unconstitutional if one major element claiming to represent a political-religious group or denomination is absent from it. This may thus lead to a period of stalemate where the new prime minister-designate will also need to get the president to sign off on the government. As happened multiple times before (the last time with Saad Hariri in 2020-2021 after former Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s resignation following the Beirut Port explosion), Aoun will likely not approve a government with which he and his party (FPM) are not comfortable. Thus, it is not clear how any government formed while Michel Aoun is still president during the next six months will be substantially different from the previous ones.
Third, there is an open question as to whether there is an alternative to Nabih Berri as Speaker of Parliament. Those familiar with Lebanon understand that there will not be, and thus any change in the leadership of parliament will not happen as a result of the elections. However, Berri’s likely reelection will come with potentially the least number of votes since his first election in 1993, and there will be a sizeable opposition from within parliament to his monopoly over this position.
Fourth, one of the important national and intra-Christian electoral battles relates to the presidential election next Fall. If one of the major arguments for Michel Aoun’s election in 2016 related to his popular representation in the so-called “Christian street,” these elections have given Samir Geagea a strong claim to present the Lebanese Forces as a major political player in deciding who succeeds Aoun. It is worth noting here that the two presidents elected after 2005 (Michel Suleiman in 2008 and Michel Aoun in 2016) came to office after a compromise settlement among the scions of the traditional political establishment. In 2008, Suleiman was elected after the infamous May 7 Beirut clashes and the Doha Agreement, and in 2016, Aoun ascended to the presidency following a presidential settlement between him, Hariri, Hezbollah, and Geagea after a prolonged presidential vacuum preceding that agreement.
Thus, the questions that present themselves over the next few months are: what will the shape of the new presidential settlement look like? Will parties accept to leave it up to parliament to “organically” decide on and elect one on time? Will there be a form of blockage (as happened last time) to prevent any candidate who does not have an endorsement from the major players? More importantly, will there be a period of presidential vacuum when Aoun’s term ends that will accentuate an already dire situation in the country?
As is clear, there are no easy answers to key questions about what went wrong in Lebanon as well as to the peculiarities of its consociational democracy.
As is clear, there are no easy answers to key questions about what went—and is likely to keep going—wrong in Lebanon as well as to the peculiarities of its consociational democracy whereby good governance is secondary to securing key positions in power and in state institutions. What is required today is a new focus on how best to serve the Lebanese people and bring about a new era in politics based on transparency, accountability, and prosperity that ends the culture of corruption and impunity that has long plagued the country.
The victory of some opposition candidates not hailing from traditional political families or parties is a welcome cause for momentary celebration for all those hoping for change. However, the next few months will most likely bring about a period of political instability and paralysis with all eyes set on who replaces Michel Aoun as president.