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Can Lebanon’s new opposition win?

The same parties have ruled since 2005 — and they’re counting on old alliances to remain in power

Campaign posters for candidates in the May 15 parliamentary elections adorn a highway in Beirut on April 12. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Lebanon is set to hold parliamentary elections on Sunday — the first since nationwide protests led to the fall of the government in October 2019. Since that time, Lebanon has undergone economic and political crises, including dramatic currency devaluation and an explosion at the Beirut port that left much of the capital destroyed.

In the previous elections, held in May 2018, voters overwhelmingly chose the same set of parties that have jointly ruled since 2005 — many of which have been in power since the end of the civil war in 1990. All of these parties cater to particular sectarian groups, reinforced by a voting system that allots seats on the basis of sect. While some self-styled “opposition” candidates ran in the last elections, only one gained a seat in parliament.

The opposition landscape in 2022 looks dramatically different. In the aftermath of Lebanon’s 2019 “October Revolution,” more than a dozen opposition movements have chosen to run candidates in the elections. Two or more opposition lists of candidates are running in almost every district, highlighting important divisions between these new groups. Conversely, governing parties have closed ranks to hold onto power amid widespread public outrage at their track record in office.

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Lebanon’s new opposition landscape

Lebanon’s opposition groups appear united in their aim to dislodge the governing regime, and most believe that elections are a key way of accomplishing this goal. Given their lack of political track record, what do we know about these groups?

A new study of 16 of the largest opposition groups by Nadim El Kak and Sami Atallah at the Policy Initiative, a Beirut-based think tank, helps shed light on where these groups stand on key election issues. On economic policy, most groups favor a more progressive taxation structure, which would boost taxes on wealthier citizens. Almost all groups also agree on a variety of social issues, including allowing women to pass citizenship to their children and legalizing same-sex marriage.

Here’s where they disagree: on issues of high salience to the electorate, such as social insurance, nationalization of Lebanon’s most vulnerable commercial banks and privatization of key sectors. They are evenly split in identifying their overall ideology as right wing or left wing. And they differ on their practical stance toward Hezbollah’s right to remain an armed group, with some prioritizing disarmament more than others.

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Lebanon’s opposition groups also diverge in their strategic approach to elections. Several groups maintain conciliatory stances toward parties that previously participated in government, while others oppose allying with old parties. Claims by parties like the Kataeb and other former “regime” members to now be part of the opposition have led to fierce contestation over the meaning and boundaries of “opposition.” Complicating matters further, a variety of well-known figures not affiliated with these groups, such as parliament members Fouad Makhzoumi and Osama Saad, and former justice minister Ashraf Rifi, also have claimed to be running as opposition candidates.

The result is an unprecedentedly diverse but fractured opposition landscape. Two or more opposition lists are running in every electoral district but one. Many of these lists comprise broad coalitions of smaller opposition groups, while others include only a single party. For example, “Citizens in a State,” abbreviated as “MMFD,” is running in all districts and doing so alone in 10 out of 15. Several other groups are running in only a few districts and largely in partnership with other groups.

Those divisions within the opposition could hurt its chances at the ballot box. Even if one list is more popular in a district, if two lists split opposition votes, they could each fail to meet the threshold for winning a seat, which is extraordinarily high in Lebanon. Perceptions that the opposition is fighting within itself or too weak to coordinate may fatigue an electorate already overwhelmed by the proliferation of new names and faces. Opposition candidates have also received very little mainstream media airtime in comparison with the governing parties.

How the governing regime is closing ranks

Lebanon’s incumbent regime faces a very different set of challenges. Protest mobilization over the past several years has blamed governance problems squarely on the regime as a collective entity. President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement appears to have lost substantial popularity in many Christian areas. Another governing party, the Future Movement, has pulled out of electoral competition, creating a void in Sunni Muslim areas formerly under its control.

Expatriate registration has nearly tripled compared with the 2018 elections, with widespread perceptions that this constituency is motivated to vote for opposition candidates. The majority of expatriates voted for the governing parties in the last elections, though, so it’s unclear exactly how much of an advantage they could give opposition candidates.

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Governing parties have responded by circling the wagons, building on long-standing electoral alliances with one another to retain power. Five main governing parties are running in the districts where they ran in the last elections, and all are allied with at least one other party in most places. Only the Lebanese Forces, which resigned from the government after the 2019 protests, is running alone in most districts.

Like in previous elections, the governing parties have coalesced into two main coalitions. While these coalitions take great pains to publicly distinguish themselves with respect to foreign policy and the status of Hezbollah’s weapons, they have usually formed governments together under the banner of “national unity” since 2005.

These parties converge on issues related to Lebanon’s ongoing governance crisis. For example, they agreed to the 2017 mandate extension of the much-criticized Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh. Most of the governing parties also voted to end the judicial investigation into the Beirut port explosion, and governing parties’ lack of support helped derail the economic restructuring plan proposed by Prime Minister Hassan Diab in 2020.

Lebanon’s 2022 electoral process has produced a competition between “regime” and “opposition” that would have been scarcely imaginable in prior electoral cycles. But its governing parties have doubled-down on the electoral alliances that brought them to power. Sunday’s vote will provide a much-anticipated test of whether and where newcomers can challenge this status quo.

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Christiana Parreira is a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Follow her on Twitter @cmparreira.

Sami Atallah is founding director of The Policy Initiative, a Beirut-based research organization. Follow him on Twitter @samiatallah1.