On Sunday, tens of thousands of Lebanese citizens will head to the polls to elect a new 128-member parliament. Against a background of rampant corruption, an economy on the verge of collapsing and rising regional tension, here are four key things to know about the upcoming elections in Lebanon.
1. The first elections since 2009 will test changing alliances
The last time Lebanese citizens elected a new parliament was in 2009. Citing concerns over the spillover effects from neighboring Syria’s ongoing civil war, members of parliament postponed the scheduled elections in 2013, 2014 and 2017. While the political elite used the events in Syria to publicly justify postponing elections, the true motive was the changing balance of power among the many local parties.
After the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, two main political blocs emerged. Hezbollah spearheaded the March 8 alliance, while a coalition formed around the March 14 alliance campaigned around containing Hezbollah’s arsenal and limiting its influence. These alliances remained intact until the elections in 2009. Although Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s March 14 alliance won a plurality of seats, it failed to deliver on its promise to check Hezbollah’s growing power and even included two Hezbollah ministers in its government.
In the following months, these two blocs began to disintegrate. In addition to clashes between the Lebanese Armed Forces and militant groups along the Syrian border, the country was crippled by political deadlock over filling the post of the president. After two and a half years of bickering, former adversaries agreed to nominate Michel Aoun in October 2016.
2. How a new electoral law may change Lebanon’s politics
In June 2017, Lebanese parliamentarians passed a new electoral law. In contrast to the previous winner-takes-all system, the new law uses a more proportional representation system. The new law also introduced the “preferential vote,” in which voters are entitled to cast one preferential vote for a candidate on their chosen list. This change will probably allow for surprises in the upcoming elections. Previously, members of different lists ran as a collective, so the preferential vote increases competition among candidates on the same list. Although established political parties will ask their supporters to cast the preferential vote in line with their blocs, the preferential vote could highlight the friction in districts where different political parties compromised to form single list.
For the first time in Lebanon’s history, expatriates living around the globe were able to cast their ballots for candidates in their districts in early voting. About 82,970 registered expatriate voters were expected to cast their ballot between April 27 and April 30.
Unlike previous elections, the new law also calls for the Ministry of Interior to prepare preprinted ballots, including the names, religious sect and photo of candidates. In the past, voters would enter polling stations with lists given by their political parties or prepared at home and could mix and match candidates from different lists or even choose one candidate. But in this round, voters must instead cast their ballot for an entire list. Preprinted ballots are likely to increase voter choice and flexibility while reducing vote-buying, cheating and electoral bribes.
3. How civil society and women are challenging the political elite
In recent years, Lebanon’s civil society has begun more actively supporting and often substituting for the weak government. Most civil society organizations focus on providing social services and reforming the sectarian-based political system.
This is the first electoral law crafted with the collaboration of parliamentarians and civil society activists. For most of Lebanon’s history, previous electoral laws were sponsored by regional powers – such as Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Syria – or superpowers, especially the United States. While regional powers will still seek to influence their proxies and clients in the upcoming elections, such influence will be comparatively limited.
Although about 379 candidates dropped because they failed to get a spot on established lists, for the first time in Lebanon’s electoral history, some 597 candidates, including independent candidates, are running for 128 seats. An unprecedented 86 women are running for office. In the 2009 elections, only 12 women ran for office.
Unlike Lebanon’s political elite, the diverse civil society organizations have a vested interest in altering the status quo and have been gearing up to challenge elites in new ways. One grass-roots movement, LiBaladi (For My Country), has formed an alliance with other independent candidates and volunteer-based campaigns known as Koullouna Watani (We Are All the Nation). Some civil society organizations have even formed alliances with established political parties.
4. Maintaining the status quo can make for strange bedfellows
Borrowing loosely from international relations scholarship, Lebanese political actors form and reform alliances to balance power, threats and interests. Specifically, Lebanon’s political elite form cross-sectarian alliances to maintain the balance of power and undercut any electoral and political competition. The elite, representing Lebanon’s different religious groups, also form intra-sectarian alliances to contain any threatening and challenging contenders within their respective religious communities.
Lebanon’s political elite, such as Aoun, Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Hariri and political party leaders are willing to temporarily forgo their differences and form alliances with political rivals to maintain the status quo. The spectrum of alliances varies by region. In Beirut, the predominantly Christian FPM is allying with Hariri’s overwhelmingly Sunni Future Movement. However, in the diverse Chouf-Aley district, the FPM has formed an electoral list with the mostly Druse Lebanese Democratic Party, against the coalition between the Future Movement and Walid Jumblatt’s overwhelmingly Druse Progressive Socialist Party.
While the upcoming elections probably will not significantly alter Lebanon’s dysfunctional state of governance, the empowerment of civil society and female candidates could lead to the election of a small number of independent deputies and signal changes further on the horizon.
Jeffrey G. Karam is a postdoctoral research fellow in the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. In fall 2018, he will be an assistant professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. You can follow him on Twitter @JGKaram.