Lebanon’s Parliamentary Election

The outcome of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections revealed that the country’s citizens are largely disillusioned and apathetic, given the low voter turnout, and an active minority is angry. At 41% turnout, this suggests the majority of the Lebanese people believed the outcome of the election would be irrelevant, and that whatever the composition of the parliament, it will not be able to extricate Lebanon from its current crises.

Indeed, political reform is no more likely today than it was under the previous parliament. Many pundits and activists are celebrating the surprise victories of independent or so-called opposition candidates, the increase in the Lebanese Forces party’s seats, and the commensurate loss of a parliamentary majority by Iran’s proxy Hezbollah and its allies. They feel this portends positive change. But this reaction is both premature and unwarranted.

An accurate breakdown of the parliamentary blocs paints a less optimistic picture. Out of a total of 128 parliamentary seats, the so-called “March 8” forces, which includes Hezbollah and its allies, can reliably count on 58 seats. The “March 14” bloc – to the extent that it still exists – can probably count 33 seats. These – and these alone – can be considered reliably anti-Hezbollah and pro-West, but even they have been willing to make compromises with the group in the past. Meanwhile, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, with eight seats, will follow the lead of its mercurial standard-bearer, and can be expected to cooperate with either side, depending on its interests. The remaining 29 seats are divided between so-called “opposition” candidates—with 13 seats—and “independents,” who garnered 16 seats. These candidates cannot accurately be considered a bloc, either between or among themselves. Their behavior and voting patterns remain unpredictable. Nor are they guaranteed, as a whole or as individual candidates, to consistently side with March 14 against the Hezbollah-aligned bloc.

Already, at least one celebrated independent candidate, Elias Jarade, has made statements indicating his willingness to cooperate with the pro-Hezbollah bloc on its interests. Jarade was celebrated for his “upset” victory over long-time Hezbollah-ally Asaad Hardan, of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, in the South Lebanon III district. Yet, speaking to Al-Manar the day after his election victory, Jarade stressed that required reforms would follow liberating lands claimed by Lebanon as occupied from Israeli control, and stressed the importance of protecting “the Resistance” and its accomplishments, and honoring the sacrifice of its “martyrs.” Another celebrated “independent,” Paula Yacoubian – who fashioned herself into the champion of the October 17, 2019, Lebanese protests – has said in the past that she had no interest in siding against Hezbollah or obeying what she described as the United States’ “inflammatory rhetoric” against Hezbollah.

All of this doesn’t presage good tidings for Lebanon. Even assuming the March 14, Opposition/Independent, and Progressive Socialist Party legislators operate as a united bloc, they would still fall short of the two-thirds majority required to take critical decisions, including electing a new president. The country can, therefore, reasonably expect that either a “compromise” candidate acceptable to Hezbollah and its allies will be elected, or extended political gridlock and paralysis will force Hezbollah’s opponents to succumb to pressure and do so anyway. In essence, a repeat of the 2016 election of Michel Aoun to the presidency, and the lead-up to it. The same will apply to any significant decision that could affect the futures or fortunes of the country’s ossified ruling political class.

The outcome of the elections has been framed as a setback for Hezbollah. Insofar as they have lost seats, and that the absolute number of votes they received reveals a minor – but possibly temporary – loss of popularity on the Shiite street, it was a loss for the Party of God. But looking at matters from this perspective is missing the proverbial forest for the trees. This parliamentary election, whatever its outcome, was never going to have a major impact on Hezbollah’s influence within the country.

The group and its allies were a minority within the parliament until the 2018 elections, and were then facing a (theoretically) unified March 14 bloc. Nevertheless, through various means, Hezbollah was still able to retain its private arsenal, grow its domestic organizational infrastructure, and embark upon military adventures in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen without any regard for Lebanese public opinion or governmental approval.

Moving forward, Hezbollah will likely once again use a combination of carrot, stick, and paralysis tactics to retain its influence and prevent any potential adverse moves by a future government. Its leadership, including Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, has also vowed that the group will be part of any future Lebanese cabinet, “whatever its composition,” and others have said that if the group’s opponents prevent its entry into the government, they will be leading the country to civil war. This suggests that, if they are not willingly admitted into the cabinet, the group will paralyze the country until they are – just as they did from 2006-2009, creating political deadlock until then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora caved and admitted them into a national unity government.

This election will have no impact on Hezbollah’s behavior vis-à-vis Israel. The singular factor that has constrained the group’s actions against the Israelis over the past two years has been the ongoing collapse and instability in Lebanon, which Hezbollah doesn’t wish to compound with a war from which Lebanon won’t recover. And I have to stress the point – Hezbollah is constrained by these factors within Lebanon, not weakened.

David Daoud is the director of Lebanon, Israel, and Syria research at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). He is on Twitter @DavidADaoud.