Lebanon’s Elections Will Deliver More of the Same

Lebanon goes to the polls on May 6 in a hyped-up parliamentary election that should make many Lebanese feel lucky to be living in a democracy. But in truth, choices in Lebanon are not as free as they might look. And even more sadly, these elections hold the promise on entrenching the grip of Hezbollah.

To start with, unlike the average democracy where elections are called to break political stalemates, Lebanon’s latest elections are being held only after rival oligarchs managed to resolve their differences and pass a law that would guarantee their dominance. And because it took the oligarchs almost a decade to agree about how to continue sharing the spoils of the state, the Lebanese people have not elected any representatives since 2009, making this outgoing parliament one with the second-longest reign in the country’s history, after the civil war parliament that remained in place from 1972 to 1992.

In resolving their differences, the oligarchs agreed on an unwritten “constitutional amendment.” While the constitution states that the “people are the source of all powers,” the new arrangement stipulates that the Lebanese people are only one of three such sources of power, the other two being the army and the“resistance.” This Hezbollah-inspired formula not only puts the army and “the resistance” on equal footing with the people, which is theoretically the ultimate sovereign, it makes both the army and the resistance independent of the will of the people.

Hezbollah’s unconstitutional formula effectively puts Lebanon’s defense and foreign policy outside the control of any government that the Lebanese people chooses. Hence, the Lebanese will be choosing a government with less authority than it is supposed to have, a government restricted to managing the economy, including services and public works. Enter the oligarchs.

Over the past four decades, Lebanon’s oligarchs have descended from the same families. Any follower of Lebanese politics knows that the country’s politicians have either been in office since forever – like the speaker, Nabih Berri, the longest serving parliamentary speaker in the world, who first assumed his office in 1992 – or they have been succeeded by their sons, grandsons or sons-in-law. This year, five to seven oligarchs – or their successors from their families – are running for election. Each of the old oligarchs or their successors head a ticket, alongside candidates who are pretty much the same ones from past parliaments.

Since independence in 1943, Lebanon has used a winner-take-all system of elections, giving oligarchs an iron grip on their communities and electoral districts. This time, however, Lebanon will implement proportionality in a multi-district election. Instead of forcing the oligarchs to run on tickets with clear platforms, proportionality prompts them to become even less ethical. Two oligarchs who are allied in one district will fight each other in the neighboring district, thus resulting in a web of alliances whose only discerning pattern is self-interest.

Nevertheless, a few non-partisan candidates, who often call themselves “independents,” see proportionality as an opportunity to snatch a seat, here or there, from the grip of oligarchs. Many of these independents have come together to form tickets of their own. Pundits believe that a handful of them might get lucky enough and make it to parliament. For despite their hold, the oligarchs – including Hezbollah – have found it unsettling to have to deal with the much weaker independents. In south Lebanon, the stronghold of Hezbollah, 40 members of the party beat up a rival independent Shia candidate who was hanging up his own election posters. In Mount Lebanon, police arrested an activist from the Christian “Lebanese Phalange Party,” along with his sister, for distributing a flyer that mocked “the achievements” of a Christian lawmaker from President Michel Aoun’s bloc. Lebanon’s oligarchs and Hezbollah have also used communal shaming, bullying and strong-arming of rivals.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has been accused of using using government resources to campaign with the Lebanese diaspora. Interior Minister Nuhad Machnouk, whose ministry manages the elections, is himself a candidate. Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been said to use the perks of his office to campaign for himself and his ticket. The Hezbollah militia has scared rivals and kept them away from their home districts.

It is almost certain that Lebanon’s oligarchs will be re-elected, along with their respective blocs. It also almost certain that the 2009 parliament will mostly reconstitute itself in 2018. The Lebanese should therefore expect more of the same, going forward.

In the new parliament, expect to see Shia Berri retain his position as speaker, Sunni Hariri keep his premiership and Christian Bassil struggle to succeed his aging father-in-law Aoun in the presidency. The Jumblatt family, now in its third post-independence generation with candidate Teymour, will maintain its Druze leadership. Leader of the “Lebanese Forces” Samir Geagea will remain the second-strongest Christian figure. And most important of all, Hezbollah will maintain its formidable militia and its grip on Lebanon at large.

Lebanon faces two chronic problems: Hezbollah’s militia with its unchecked military and security power, and the oligarchy. This year’s elections will do little to solve either problem, reaffirming suspicions that the so-called Lebanese democracy is unresponsive to change from within. And because of that, the process becomes a popularity contest through which the oligarchs will renew their mandate, as Hezbollah further normalizes its unconstitutional arrangement for the country.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.