Lebanon: A New Page Has Yet To Be Turned

BY BASANTI MARDEMOOTOO

The prime minister of Lebanon on election day (Reuters).

 

Earlier this month Lebanon saw something it had not seen in almost 10 years – a general election. Stemming from claims of security threats, domestic crises, political stalemate and a range of other inconsequential issues, the government did everything in their power to delay the elections. If their goal was to extend their time in power, some may argue – given the new election results – that they were right to keep pushing back the election date. The general election brought with it a new, shuffled seat distribution alongside a new parliamentary map which changed the electoral process. Despite all of this commotion regarding the recent elections, many are bypassing the fact that there was less than a 50 percent voter turnout – a significant reduction since the last election. This begs the questions – what do the above changes mean? – but more importantly, what is the message that the country’s silent majority is  trying to convey to its political leaders?

The election results showed an important shift in the seat holders compared to the previous election. The current government, led by President Aoun from the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Prime Minister Hariri from the Future Movement (FM) in conjunction with the parliament set out a new parliamentary map. This map re-divided the country’s districts and subdistricts in order to configure an updated, more complicated version of a proportional representational system. For the purposes of this article, the details of this new system as opposed to the one in play during previous elections is not integral to understand the output of the elections, however, it is important to note that it has been argued to have potentially been one of the reasons for the lower voter turnout. With a new, complex system which changed the districts present, it is easy to see how regular voters may have been confused about how to vote. At the core, this change was recommended in hopes of helping better the representation in parliament and to encourage political competition between groups of different ideological stances.

The most important change brought upon by these recent elections have to do with the increase in votes obtained by Hezbollah and its allied parties and the significant decrease in votes seen by the Future Movement and Prime Minister Hariri’s allies. Despite Hezbollah itself only winning 13 seats, the fact that it ran on a joint list with political party Amal as Al Amal Wal Wafa and in partnership with a range of other parties led to their total votes (by association) being 56 seats out of the 128 seat parliament. Future Movement, on the other hand, suffered a big loss going from 33 seats to 21. It is important to note that for Lebanon, similarly to other countries with a very fragmented proportional representation system (meaning the presence of many parties with different political views), it is very rare for just one party to win the majority of seats in parliament from election votes. Coalitions are needed in order to reach the number needed to have a government – which in this case would be 65 seats. Now that the votes are in, coalition negotiations will begin but it is unlikely that Hariri will not return to his position as Prime Minister given his party’s allies and the seats they won during this election. Therefore, even though Hezbollah’s influence in parliament will change, they are not in a strong enough position to win any cabinet seats just yet.

There has been a significant amount of international response after the results were released, mainly directed towards Hezbollah’s increase of seats. Israel was quick to respond with one of it’s cabinet members stating that “Hezbollah = Lebanon”.There are many questionable aspects of this statement but the one at the forefront of the pack is the fact that the voter turnout was below 50 percent  which means that the majority of Lebanese citizens did not vote in these elections. As mentioned above, part of this could be due to the fact that the change in district distribution could have confused many people, but it is my opinion that there is something bigger at play here. There is an innate problem with the political system’s design in Lebanon and something has to change. The fact that districts were changed does not make the impact which is needed to clear this country’s tainted domestic issues. The reality is that many Lebanese are frustrated with the lack of progress that stems from the political structure in place.

With one of the most unique political systems in the world, Lebanon’s governmental structure features an agreement based on the equal representation of the religious sects in the country. Therefore, the old electoral law, commonly known as the “1960 law,” was sectarian-based. Designed to lessen the tensions within Lebanon’s borders, this law attributed a set number of parliamentary seats to a different religious group in each district. With this structure, the candidates still had to win a plurality of the vote in order to be elected. Despite the old system’s goal of reducing government disagreements, the absence of a recent consensus has been causing disruption in the last few years. Most political parties agreed that reform was needed, but often disagreed on what system should replace the one they had. Under the agreement, the parliament’s 128 seats are divided equally among Muslims and Christians, whereby the country’s president should be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. After a recent stalemate saw the parliament extend its time in power twice and a country left without a president for two years between 2014 and 2016, it is not surprising that an electoral change was finally made. But the disagreement amongst parties existed for a reason and it can be argued the change made to the system did not do much – it simply led to a reshuffle of parliamentary power.

Despite the fact that the increase in votes attributed to Hezbollah’s party allies, and that Iranian control over the Levantinan region cannot be controlled – the domestic side of politics in Lebanon cannot be ignored. There is no doubt that the country’s instability and social issues will lead to the society wanting to create alternative options in terms of party preferences. It is not surprising that Prime Minister Hariri’s party lost votes but the vote increase seen by Hezbollah will not do much – it is clear that a whole new platform will be needed for the silent majority to show their support through elections.

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