Analysis

Lebanon Heads to the Polls Today to Decide: Will the Country Be Iranian or Arab

Sunday’s election will be the first in Lebanon since 2009, following years during which the main political parties failed to reach understandings regarding the election system

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on screen at an election rally in Baalbeck, Lebanon, May 1, 2018.
\ HASSAN ABDALLAH/ REUTERS

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has donned his late father Rafik’s brown and golden abaya cloak and started to roam through the rural areas of Lebanon. Like all the other candidates, Hariri was busy hugging babies and shaking hands, under heavy security guard. He had no difficulties paying the $5,300 required for registering as a candidate.

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Although his finances aren’t as robust as they used to be after a big company he owned went bankrupt last summer, he still has enough cash in his coffers to fund an election campaign that includes thousands of billboards, video clips and interviews on media outlets he owns, and payments to advisers, assistants and numerous bodyguards.

Only six months ago Hariri was arrested in Saudi Arabia and forced to announce his resignation as prime minister, as part of a failed takeover attempt by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The extensive protests in Lebanon against his detention (which was denied by the Saudis) and particularly the intervention of French President Emmanuel Macron led to Hariri’s release, which was loudly applauded in Beirut.

Alongside Hariri, other contenders include party leaders and the heads of prominent families representing the traditional elites that have been managing Lebanese politics ever since the end of the civil war in 1990. Using the abaya belonging to his father, who was murdered by Syrian and probably Hezbollah agents in a car explosion in 2005, evokes harsh memories from the last decade, when political assassinations were common. These deepened the rift between Hariri’s supporters among the wider Sunni community and Hezbollah supporters, which include Lebanon’s Christian President Michel Aoun, who went from being an avowed opponent of the organization and of Syria to a Hezbollah ally, which helped him get elected.

A campaign poster of Lebanese prime minister and candidate for the parliamentary election Saad Hariri on a building in Beirut, Lebanon May 4, 2018.
\ MOHAMED AZAKIR/ REUTERS

Sunday’s election will be the first in Lebanon since 2009, following years during which the main political parties failed to reach understandings regarding the election system or a new law governing it. Annual budgets were renewed based on previous years’ budgets; only this year was a new and updated budget approved. Key decisions were not made and development projects were almost completely stalled. Government function was based on ad hoc agreements and political alliances that did not require parliamentary approval. Holding the election now still cannot guarantee orderly governance, although a new and complicated election law provides opportunities for new parties and candidates that do not belong to the old elites.

The new law attempts to break down the fixed selection of candidates based on religious affiliation. It’s based on a blended, proportional system which divides the country into 15 regions (compared to 23 under the older law). Parties and not individual candidates compete in each region, while voters choose a party and select their preferred candidate. Each region gets a quota of seats out of the 128 in parliament, with the quota set along party lines.

The matrix that will ultimately determine the list of those elected is the most complicated one in Lebanon’s history. It takes into account three main elements: the seat quotas, the success of each list and the candidates with the most votes in each party. Surplus votes will be divided among the winning parties according to an even more complicated index – appropriate for a country that formally recognizes 18 religious communities. One can only hope that the vote counting and distributions don’t overload the election committee’s computers, or that they don’t cause conflicts due to forgeries and arithmetic distortions.

The novelty of this election lies in the fact that one cannot predict the winning parties or candidates. In some regions, parties needed to include candidates that do not support their platform in order to increase their chances of winning. Absurdly, in some regions two parties are allies whereas in others they are running against each other. Special interest is given to new parties that include young activists who will try to unseat older elites with new platforms that include advocating for human rights, getting rid of deep-seated corruption in Lebanon’s bureaucracy and improvements in services for citizens. These parties lack funds and cannot afford air time or billboards, the prices of which skyrocketed to fantastic levels ahead of the election.

The main dispute among Lebanon’s political analysts revolves around whether the new law will help or harm Hezbollah. Some believe that the bloc headed by Hariri will lose votes but will still be the one the president tasks with forming a government, based on understandings between Hezbollah and Hariri that allowed the formation of the outgoing government as well. On the eve of the election Hariri was believed to be adopting a tough stance against the organization. He tweeted this week that “anyone not voting is giving Hezbollah another vote.”

Posters of candidates for the upcoming Lebanese parliamentary elections hang on the walls of buildings in northern Lebanese city Tripoli's adjacent Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighbourhoods on May 3, 2018.
JOSEPH EID/AFP

Hariri was latching on to his father’s image, writing that his party was “the safeguard against those who wish to erase memories of Beirut and of Rafik al-Hariri, his achievements and sacrifice. If you want his plans for Lebanon and Beirut to continue, vote for him.” Evoking a father’s legacy? This should not be surprising, especially not in Israel, where candidates evoke the legacy of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, or that of Ze’ev Jabotinsky or Judah Maccabee. In Lebanon these legacies have practical significance since they involve the formation of identity and the nature of one’s affiliation with the nation and its future, or, as one analyst put it: “Will Lebanon be Iranian or Arab?”

This question worries not only Lebanon, with its six million inhabitants and one million Syrian refugees. Saudi Arabia and Iran see Lebanon as a vital arena in their struggle, and this has implications for Lebanon’s international standing. The Saudis flexed their muscles two years ago when they froze financial support to the tune of $1 billion, as well as a $3 billion loan for military acquisitions – sanctions imposed due to Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. The sanctions didn’t work and Hezbollah remained in Syria, just as Hariri’s resignation under Saudi pressure did not change Hezbollah’s position. The Saudis are now offering to unfreeze the $1 billion line of credit as a sign of the bounty Lebanon can expect if its citizens vote for Hariri and the parties supporting him.

However, in contrast to Iran, which supports Hezbollah and its supporters intensively, the Saudi crown prince has already shown that when he can’t get political or diplomatic actions to move in the direction he wants, he skulks to his corner. This is what he’s doing now with regard to the Palestinian issue, in which he’s lost interest, and the Syrian crisis, from which he’s withdrawn, or, more accurately, from which he was deposed. This will apparently be true for Lebanon as well. In comparison, Iran cannot afford to abandon Lebanon – and not only because that is where it has managed to build a deterrent force against Israel through Hezbollah.

Lebanon’s political structure and the power of the Shi’ites, along with the fragile web of intercommunal relations, give Iran unique leverage in an Arab country. Iran acquired similar influence in Iraq but there, unlike in Lebanon, it has to contend with political forces that include Shi’ite movements and powerful religious figures such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who do not see eye to eye with Iran on how to run the country and the nature of its regime. In Lebanon there is no internal political force which can compete with Hezbollah’s power. In Iraq, Iran has chalked up significant political and economic gains due to Saudi policies, whereby Saudi Arabia ignored Iraq, not setting up an embassy there until 2016.

The determining issue for Iran and Saudi Arabia is not just the results of this election but the composition of the government that follows. Estimates are that Hariri, even if he loses votes, will be prime minister, both since he’s the only one who can currently get the support of most parties and because of his international standing. This paradoxically gives legitimacy to Hezbollah as well, since its representatives will be part of his government. If Hariri is prime minister again, the question is who his partners are and to what extent he’ll be able to lead a military and economic policy and what restraints Hezbollah will put on him.

As far as Israel is concerned, no dramatic changes are expected as long as the political forces running the country remain unchanged. A new government will not remove the threat of Hezbollah nor act to disarm it. The balance of forces between Israel and Lebanon depends on the results of the war in Syria, not the election in Lebanon.