Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In Lebanon, Balance of Power Shifts after Chaotic Elections

The results of the Lebanese parliamentary elections, the first in nine years, were announced on 8 May 2018, two days after the polls closed. As expected, the voting and counting process were far from smooth. Less expected were the results themselves, which showed a clear shift in the balance of power.

The pro-Iran and anti-Israel Shiite Hezbollah party and its allies won more than a third of the 128 seats, giving them veto power. Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, part of the anti-Syrian and anti-Iran March 14 Alliance, lost a third of his seats. However, it is likely that he will remain prime minister because of Lebanon’s sectarian political system.

In a televised statement, Hariri, a Sunni politician with close ties to Saudi Arabia, acknowledged that his bloc had lost seats, blaming a new law that shifts elections to a partially proportional representation system rather than the previous winner-takes-all system, and a performance “that wasn’t up to the standard”.

He added, “My hand is extended to every Lebanese who participated in the elections to preserve stability and create jobs.”

Lebanese President Michel Aoun‘s Free Patriotic MovementA (FPM) won 28 seats, making it the largest bloc in the assembly. Gibran Bassil, foreign minister and head of FPM, told reporters that the bloc would maintain its “strategic alliance” with Hezbollah. Paula Yacoubian, a former journalist running on a list of outsiders known as Kulna Watani, won a seat in the capital Beirut.

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A Lebanese woman wearing a t-shirt bearing an image of the chief of the Hezbollah Shiite movement waits her turn to vote in the city of Baalbeck, in the Bekaa valley, on May 6, 2018. Photo AFP

A total of six women were elected, a first in Lebanon. Also notable was wins by the sons of several former or current political leaders, including Michel Moawad, son of former President Rene Moawad, Nadim Gemayel, son of former President-elect Bachir Gemayel, and Taymour Jumblatt, son of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech that the “mission is accomplished” after weeks of campaigning. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist group by the United States and other countries in the West, but its political wing has long held seats in Lebanon’s parliament and is part of the outgoing coalition government.

Congratulations were quick in coming from Iran, with Ali Akbar Vilayati, international affairs adviser to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, stating that the gains constituted a “victory” for Hezbollah “against the claims of the Zionists and Saudi conspiracies”. He added: “This victory and the vote of the Lebanese people for the resistance list is the result of the influence of Lebanese policies on preserving stability and supporting Syria in the face of terrorists.”

Indeed, the strengthened position of Hezbollah’s bloc could have a long-term impact on Lebanese politics and society, not least because it will have the power to veto decisions taken, notably on the formation of the new government. As a designated terrorist group, it could also affect Lebanon’s access to loans and financial aid from the international community, and destabilize relations with the Gulf countries opposed to Syria and Iran. It is unclear yet whether Lebanon’s stability will be truly affected, as Europe, for instance, is interested in its continuing stability. However, Iranian influence has without a doubt made large gains in this small country’s political life.

The election results were announced two days after the vote, with incomplete results from 14 of the 15 districts available on election day itself. Although Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk had said he would present the results on 7 May at dawn, he only announced the names of the new MPs that evening, and the final results were only available the following day, as ballots in the northern Akkar district were recounted.

This is just one of the many problems and irregularities observed during the elections. First, it seems that access to polling stations was difficult for people with reduced mobility and the elderly, according to the European Union’s Election Observation Mission. Turnout was also low, with only 49.2 per cent of voters casting a vote, compared to 54 per cent in the previous elections in 2009. According to the American National Democratic Institute (NDI), which observed the elections, ‘While none of the shortcomings would appear to have had a significant effect on the outcome of the election, there was a palpable sense of voter apathy which translated into a voter turnout figure lower than that reported in 2009’. Frustration with the political elite as well as confusion about the new electoral law and a campaign that was light on content are the main reasons why fewer people voted.

Violence erupted throughout Beirut on election day as Hezbollah loyalists on motorbikes waving flags clashed with Future Movement loyalists. The army was deployed to calm the situation and motorbikes were banned in Beirut for 72 hours.

Supporters of Joumana Haddad, a novelist and candidate from the Kulna Watani, also gathered outside the Interior Ministry to protest what they claimed were clear signs of fraud to deny her victory.

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Sources: al-Jazeera, The Gulf News, Wikipedia, The Daily Star, The Guardian. Click to enlarge. @Fanack ©Fanack CC BY 4.0

The issue, according to Kulna Watani, revolves around election delegates reportedly being removed from a room where ballots were being counted at Beirut’s Forum du Beyrouth, due to an unspecified ‘technical error’. The protesters demanded that the votes be recounted, but so far the Interior Ministry has not responded to the request.

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