Structural Barriers Dull Hope for Change From the Lebanese Parliamentary Elections by Silas Dustin

Lebanon’s rigid political structure almost certainly prevents the results of the parliamentary elections from bringing about the reforms needed to lift the country out of its financial crisis.

Lebanon held its parliamentary elections on May 15. Widespread discontent from the 2019 financial collapse persists today, and the elections created a never before seen window of possibilities that new candidates and secular parties, arising out of corruption protest movements, would reform the government. However, the structure of the Lebanese constitution will likely prevent any emergent factions from overcoming the sectarian divisions that are built into the political system. Most importantly, Hezbollah, which many Lebanese view as responsible for the instability afflicting the country, continues to benefit from the structural constraints despite the loss of its parliamentary majority. Ultimately, with constitutional barriers preventing systemic change to Lebanese politics, it is unlikely the newly elected opposition candidates will provide enough impetus to alleviate the financial crisis plaguing Lebanon.

Constitutional Rigidity Dashes Hopes for New Blood in Lebanese Parliament

In the run-up to the elections, a series of new candidates provided hope for change, but due to internal disorganization they are unlikely to overcome systemic barriers to affect change in Lebanon. Since the Lebanese political system is apportioned based on sect, newcomer electoral candidates have a significant disadvantage. Constitutionally, the 128 parliamentary seats are split in half between Muslims and Christians, and these halves are further apportioned among 18 sects based on representation from a 1932 census. Therefore, the ability to run for office is limited both by sect membership and the availability of mandated seats. Furthermore, by guaranteeing a set level of representation, apportionment maintains the status quo and constrains significant political shifts.

As a result of this political rigidity, the Lebanese system is rampant with clientelism and made up of tribalistic constituencies, rather than a single government with diverse perspectives. Lebanon’s limited parliamentary seats have been dominated by nepotistic political families and religious clans that pass down their authority to their sons and relatives. The tumultuous past couple of years have led to retirement of key players from politics, opening the door for new blood to enter the mix. However, the few parliamentary seats available due to rigid sectarian apportionment mean that any newcomers hoping to step in need to form alliances within the system to present a meaningful opposition.

The divisions in the Lebanese system go further than limiting the number of available seats for which a candidate is eligible because they exclude secular candidates altogether. In what many Lebanese saw as the fruition of the 2019 protest movement, many novel secular parties formed to run for the elections. These groups, known as the thawra [revolution] are unique in that they run on a secular platform representing the Lebanese people as a nation, rather than aligning with a particular religious sect. This spring, Lebanon’s highest administrative court made a historic ruling affirming the right for those who do not list a sect on their civil registry records to run for elected office. While the court decision affirms the thawra’s legitimacy to candidacy, paradoxically they still must run for the electoral seat associated with the sect on a candidate’s identity card. This structural barrier to secular representation in the Lebanese parliament makes competition with established sect-based parties more difficult. Despite initial hopes that secularism might provide a viable alternative for Lebanon, the parties remain divided and disorganized, effectively splitting the potency of their voter base. Although not unified into a single voting bloc, opposition candidates were able to win thirteen of the 128 parliamentary seats. However, if these candidates remain divided, their win is expected to have limited results for Lebanon’s future.

Structural Issues May Bolster Hezbollah’s Parliamentary Majority

The same political arrangement that keeps new faces and ideas from entering Lebanese politics is almost certain to continue to reward the Hezbollah coalition. Hezbollah’s traditional opposition, the Sunni sect, has been facing challenges after their longtime party unifier, Saad Hariri, stepped down from politics in January 2022. Additionally Lebanon’s current Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, did not run for reelection. There are no serious contenders to take his place, which is problematic for the Sunnis since the prime minister of Lebanon is mandated by the constitution to be a Sunni Muslim. Given the leadership void, the Sunni electorate had low voter turnout. In the Lebanese electoral system, candidates must be elected via a ticket with a single vote for all the seats in their electoral district, instead of only the ones for their sect. This system was expected to benefit Hezbollah in gaining seats for their coalition in parliament due to the strong pressure they put on their constituency to vote. While they lost their majority, the Hezbollah-aligned coalition remains the largest parliamentary bloc following the elections.

Many Lebanese are jaded by a system that benefits Hezbollah, which some see as an organization that advances the interests of Iran over the interests of Lebanon. Despite losing seats in this election, Hezbollah is likely to remain a significant political force. Beyond politics, Hezbollah’s unique right to keep its weapons after the Lebanese Civil War permits it to act as an independent entity within the Lebanese state. Notwithstanding the electoral results, strong institutional support among the Shia community and seat apportionment almost guarantee Hezbollah will maintain its influence and be able to keep its weapons. On the other hand, their Christian allies, the Free Patriotic Movement, lost the Christian majority seats to competition from anti-Hezbollah Christians, the Lebanese Forces Party. Given that the new parliament will elect a new Christian president as mandated by the constitution, the Lebanese Forces win could result in a president opposed to Hezbollah. Ultimately, since half of the seats in parliament are guaranteed to be Muslim, the Hezbollah aligned coalition was able to remain the largest coalition notwithstanding the loss of the majority. Even in the unlikely event the formation of a new government unites against Hezbollah, it still has the means to obstruct the formation of a government by the threat or use of force, as they have done historically.

No End in Sight for the Financial Crisis

The election results show Hezbollah no longer has the parliamentary majority, but no coalition has taken its place. The strict apportionment of seats in the Lebanese parliament hindered widespread turnover in the institution. Even with Lebanese hopes for opposition candidates, institutional barriers have kept mostly the same individuals and clans in power. In a system with little accountability, the same individuals have little motivation to attempt to alleviate the on-going financial crisis. One solution in the works is aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but it is conditioned on economic and legal reforms. The elections took place, but a new government has to be formed, and political positions distributed before further legislation can be made to address the IMF deal. Despite the limited turnover in seats, the political establishment is not incentivized to make changes to a system that has long served them. Even the thawra’s twelve new faces in parliament will be unlikely to overcome the structural barriers of the Lebanese Constitution to meet the demands of the IMF deal, further continuing the financial crisis.

Author: Silas Dustin is a Master’s student at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. He is currently focusing on Intelligence and Low Intensity Conflicts. Silas holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from American University and is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @silasdustin27

DisclaimerThe opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Navanti Group or its partners.