Analysis |

Hezbollah's Election Loss Is Only the Beginning of This Lebanese Drama

While public protest led to political returns in Lebanon's elections, the new map of political power elicits fear that disputes between opponents and supporters of Hezbollah will spill over to the streets

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Supporters carry Hezbollah and Amal Movement flags in Nabatiyeh, southern Lebanon, in May.
Supporters carry Hezbollah and Amal Movement flags in Nabatiyeh, southern Lebanon, in May.Credit: ISSAM ABDALLAH/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Hezbollah and its allies suffer a harsh blow,” was the lead headline Tuesday for most media outlets in Lebanon – and the world. True, the results of Sunday’s elections show that the “Hezbollah bloc,” which includes representatives of the Amal movement, Hezbollah and the Christian party the Free Patriotic Movement, lost their parliamentary majority, dropping from 71 members to just 61. But examining the election results based on only the “Hezbollah test” blurs part of the election’s other achievements.

This is the first time independent civilian movements that ran against established traditional parties won such broad public support, earning 14 seats in parliament. Most of the candidates from these movements, which are called the Force for Change, emerged amid the disappointment, frustration and despair from the economic situation in Lebanon, and the corruption and dysfunctional government. The rebellion and public protests led to proper political returns this time, which not only ate away at the margins of the “elitist parties,” but could turn out to be the deciding factor in any future government.

This accomplishment is even greater if one takes into account the low voter turnout, about 41 percent, which testifies more than anything to Lebanese citizens’ deep lack of trust in the electoral process and the public’s ability to change the political structure. The success of the independents could possibly lead to even higher turnout in future elections, and thus create a new political order in a country where change has been considered impossible until now. Nonetheless, they will also have to play the political game if they want to survive.

Alongside the independents, the Lebanese Forces party led by Samir Geagea won an important victory, taking 20 seats. It will now be the largest Christian party, displacing the Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah’s ally, which is led by Gebran Gerge Bassil, the son-in-law of Michel Aoun, who founded the party. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt can also celebrate after his party won all the seats allocated to the Druze in parliament, and after the defeat of his rivals Talal Arslan and Wiam Wahhab, allies of Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah.

But the new map of political power, which gives no absolute advantage to any bloc, may not be enough to rescue Lebanon from its crises. Without a majority bloc, and with an independent bloc that is neither large enough nor unified, Lebanon is expected to return to the period of political paralysis that characterized the country from 2009 to 2018. During that period, Lebanon was unable to choose a president for more than two years because of harsh political disputes – and this was when Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement (Mustaqbal) party held 71 seats in parliament.

From 2009 to 2018, parliamentary elections were not held, and the parliament extended its own term every year. This is why a comparison to the previous parliament and the distribution of political power as it had been in 2018 is not enough to say that the drop in Hezbollah and its partners’ electoral power guarantees stability or an effective, agreed upon leadership that could decide on and implement the reforms Lebanon needs to rebuild its economy.

The new parliament will first face the challenge of electing a president to replace Aoun, whose term officially ends in October. Electing a president is not just a ceremonial matter. In Lebanon, the president appoints the prime minister, and is entitled to fire the prime minister and the entire cabinet. He is the supreme commander of the military and is also authorized to dissolve parliament and veto laws. This great power and active involvement in political life makes the president the dominant player – and leads to the enormous difficulty in reaching an agreement on the appointment.

It is not superfluous to mention in this context that from 2014 to 2018 the dispute over choosing a president led to the political leadership not appointing one, and some of his roles were filled temporarily by the prime minister. Electing a president requires the approval of two-thirds of the parliament. But the constitution does not state explicitly whether this is two-thirds of the members of parliament, or only two-thirds of the members who are present for the vote – on the condition that this number is not just over 50 percent.

According to the two interpretations, the new parliament will be unable to provide the quorum required without the Hezbollah bloc’s support. This is how Hezbollah can indefinitely delay the election of a new president by having its representatives simply not show up for votes. If the factions cannot reach an agreement on a new prime minister before the end of Aoun’s term, the parliament will be forced to agree upon an alternative process for appointing a prime minister that does not involve parliamentary approval. This is the paradox within the Lebanese political system, and it is what absurdly enables small parties to disrupt, and even prevent the appointment of the most senior officials in the country.

But even if the parliament meets the challenge of electing a new president, and even if a prime minister is appointed within a reasonable period of time and he manages to form a government – don’t hold your breath – the new government will face a minefield. Cardinal decisions, such as on the budget, economic reforms, approving treaties and declaring war, require the approval of two-thirds of cabinet ministers. This means that every bloc that has a third of the 30 ministers plus one can block, cancel and prevent any important government initiative.

Hezbollah needs 11 ministers to cooperate with it so that it can dictate economic and military policy. It will not always have a “blocking third,” and this is why it needs a “friendly” president who will appoint ministers who support Hezbollah. Such ministers have been a point of contention between the organization and prime ministers, and the battle against them was one of the causes behind the resignation of the previous prime minister, Saad al-Hariri. A new edition of these conflicts is now expected to start in the next few days.

This is the reason for the fear that the political disputes will spill over into the streets and turn into violent confrontations between supporters and opponents of Hezbollah – and some in Lebanon are warning about the return of the civil war – or that Hezbollah will push to demonstrate its power and lead to a military confrontation with Israel, which would force other political forces to show their support for Hezbollah.

At the same time, it is also clear to Hezbollah’s opponents that preventing these scenarios will require them to come together quickly and reach agreements to present an authoritative government that could receive the billions of dollars in aid that is waiting for Lebanon from the donor nations and the International Monetary Fund.

This means that the urgency and the necessity to break the deadlock the Lebanese economy is mired in could actually speed up the political forces in achieving cooperation, even if this means political concessions to Hezbollah and its allies. For now, this seems a distant possibility. For now, the ego, prestige and personal interests that characterize Lebanese politics are not showing any signs of fading away.

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