Lebanon's Unique Democracy: 7 Things to Know About Today's Elections

A complex new election law, sectarianism, Palestinian refugees, and the 'selfie prime minister': Your guide to Lebanon's first general election in 9 years

Women queue to vote at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Beirut, Lebanon, May 6, 2018.
\ MOHAMED AZAKIR/ REUTERS

It's Lebanon's unique form of democracy.

Almost everyone in the country complains about it. The same political dynasties dominating year after year, and politicians work for their sect, or their own families. No one has repaired an electricity system that's been decrepit for decades or organized the proper collection of garbage because of business feuds.

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It's also a tough system to change. Each community fears losing power or patronage. After the 1975-1990 civil war, the balance between Shi'ites, Sunnis and Christians — the main sects among 18 official ones — preserves a stability that always seems on the verge of collapse, but, for the past decade at least, has not.

Here are seven things to know about the system to help understand Sunday's parliamentary elections.

Lebanese general election breakdown
Reuters

Some firsts

It's the first time the Lebanese are voting for a parliament in nine years and the first election held since the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011. The vote has been postponed a number of times over concerns it would ignite tensions among Lebanon's sects, already heightened by that war.

Lawmakers have haggled over election reform for years, finally passing a new law last summer to replace one in place since 1960. The law allows expats to vote for the first time. Of 900,000 voters abroad, only 83,000 registered and just over half of them voted last week. There are a total of 3.6 million registered voters.

For the first time, women make up nearly 10 percent of the candidates, up from a meager 1.7 percent in 2009. Only four women made it to Lebanon's 128-seat parliament in the last election, a dismal figure compared to other countries in the region. Also, a record number of civil society activists and independents are running, hoping to at least open a crack in Lebanon's system.

Complicated law

The new election law is so complex that some say they would rather stay at home because they can't figure out how their vote will be computed.

The law implements a proportional system that awards seats by the share of vote received, instead of the former winner-takes-all system in each district. It reduces the number of electoral constituencies from 23 to 15, and allows voters to choose both an electoral list and a preferred candidate from that list.

In theory, it should allow candidates beyond traditional power players to win seats. But it also preserves the sectarian divvying-up of seats in different districts; Muslims and Christians each get around half, and smaller communities the remainder.

The elephant in the room

Lebanon's strongest political party is the only one with an active militia: Hezbollah.

The Iranian-backed Shiite faction has thousands of fighters in Syria supporting President Bashar Assad, an intervention that is deeply divisive in Lebanon. Sunnis largely sympathize with the rebels trying to bring Assad down and resent Hezbollah's political domination and its armed wing, which is more powerful than the national military.

But that issue has been too sensitive to feature in the current election. Instead, many have focused on calls for the return of more than a million Syrian refugees, saying they threaten the sectarian balance and burden local infrastructure.

Father and sons

Even though the civil war ended 28 years ago, politics are still dominated by former warlords and family dynasties, who have always been able to settle elections before voters get to the polls.

Some are virtually untouchable. The 80-year-old parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, a Shiite who has held the post for more than 25 years, is running virtually uncontested.

Others are now passing their seats on to their children. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, 68, has stepped aside for his son, Taymour. The seat of Suleiman Frangieh, a 52-year-old Maronite Christian leader who is seen as a potential presidential candidate, is going to his son Tony. Michelle Tueni, daughter of lawmaker and journalist Gibran Tueni, who was assassinated in a 2005 car bomb, is also running.

One Lebanese website listed second generation politicians running to replace their fathers, then posted pictures of their toddler children, captioned: "Your parliament members for 2025."

Symbolic votes

For the disenfranchised and the forgotten, election season is a chance to get noticed.

Palestinian parliamentary candidate Manal Kortam, who has nominated herself for a seat that does not exist in next month's elections to raise awareness about the situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, poses for a picture in front of a graffiti of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the entrance of the Mar Elias Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut on April 26, 2018.
JOSEPH EID/AFP

Manal Kortam is running, but only symbolically — she has no right to run or vote because she's Palestinian. Actually, her mother is Lebanese, but under Lebanese law women cannot pass down citizenship.

There are about 174,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, many of them descendants of those who fled to the country after the creation of Israel in 1948. They have no citizenship and few rights, are highly restricted in where they can work, and are often seen as a disruption to the delicate sectarian balance.

Kortam took to social media with her #WeExist campaign, touring refugee camps and speaking on TV "so they get ready to deal with us after the elections," as she put it on her Twitter account.

The selfie prime minister

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has plastered pictures of himself — and his assassinated father whose political mantle he inherited — all over Beirut, including at its landmark seaside Ferris wheel.

He's now being referred to as "the selfie prime minister," and he even created a selfie app. Some of his supporters have painted sheep and camels blue, the campaign color of his Future Movement, and paraded them along streets before slaughtering them, sparking outrage from rights activists.

It's a sign that his movement, a bastion of Sunnis, is struggling. The new election law opens up room for other Sunnis to garner votes, and Hariri has faced criticism over his close ties with Shiite Hezbollah, on whose support he relies for his post.

After the euphoria, jokes

As it became clear the new election law would likely do little to change the system, many responded with grim humor.

A group of clowns known as "Clown Me In" has been mocking campaign slogans.

"It is time!" one Christian party's campaign posters proclaimed. "It is time for popcorn," countered a red-nosed clown in an online meme.

A Twitter account listed 12 octogenarian candidates and pronounced them The List of "We Belong to God and to Him we all return" — a local saying for the deceased.

Two artists, Michelle and Noel Keserwany, struck a chord with a music video urging young people to make new choices and break the cycle. Its refrain: "Here we go again, here we go again."