Lebanon will conduct its first parliamentary elections in nine years on May 6, 2018. The contest should have been held in 2013, but elections were delayed – twice – beyond their four-year term due to the legislative body’s inability to elect a new president. Finally, the deadlock was broken on October 31, 2016, with the election of Hezbollah-allied Michel Aoun as president. Shortly thereafter, pro-Western Saad Hariri assumed the premiership, and was tasked with preparing Lebanon for parliamentary elections. Hariri’s government drafted a new electoral law – based on proportional representation, and dividing Lebanon into 15 electoral districts – which was ratified on June 17, 2017. Parliament again extended its term for another 11 months, but now only to prepare for elections under the new law’s rules.
Lebanon’s political parties will be waging a furious battle over the legislative body because, in addition to normal legislative powers, it is constitutionally empowered to essentially set the tone for Lebanon’s two other major centers of power: the presidency and the prime minister’s office. Parliament elects Lebanon’s president, by a 2/3rds majority, and is also empowered to impeach him, either for ordinary crimes, violation of the constitution, or high treason. The president then has to consult with parliament’s speaker on the appointment of a prime minister. The latter, in turn, must submit his government’s program to the legislature for approval. Parliament likewise holds impeachment power over the prime minister, and can remove either all or individual members of his Cabinet, through a no-confidence vote. The Lebanese parliament also has the power to initiate constitutional amendments, as well as refer laws of questionable constitutionality to the Constitutional Council.
Parliament’s seats are set at 128 by law, though they will be increased to 134 in 2022, with the six additional seats representing expatriates. The constitution reserves half of those seats for Muslim lawmakers, and half for Christians. Those are then subdivided proportionally according to each religion’s sect. Parliamentarians are elected by universal suffrage, though certain seats are reserved according to sect. For example, only Sunnis may compete for a Sunni-reserved seat, and they would only run against the Sunnis on a competing electoral list. However, anyone – Sunni or non-Sunni alike – can vote for their preferred candidate from among the several Sunnis running for that seat.
Due to political fragmentation – as well as jockeying for seats under the new electoral law – the familiar binary division of Lebanese politics into the pro-Western March 14 Alliance and pro-Syrian March 8 Alliance no longer holds. Old political foes are now running on the same electoral tickets, often against their erstwhile allies. These could be temporary marriages of convenience for the elections, but deep rifts within the two familiar alliances may make these divisions more permanent.
March 8 is an alliance of pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian Lebanese parties. Its largest party Michel Aoun’s predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), currently led by his son-in-law and Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Hezbollah de facto leads the alliance, and other important parties are the Amal Movement – a Lebanese nationalist Shiite faction that acts as Hezbollah’s ally-cum- rival – led by parliament speaker Nabih Berri, and Sleiman Frangieh’s Maronite Christian Marada Party.
March 8 remains somewhat more unified than its pro-Western competitor, but is still fractured. FPM’s relations with Marada soured over competition for the presidency, and spilled over into its relationship with Amal. Hezbollah has unsuccessfully attempted to reconcile the disputants. By contrast, though FPM and Hezbollah are not allied in most electoral districts, their relationship – one of the longest-lasting and most durable political alliances in Lebanese history – remains strong. Borne out of self-interest, it remains valuable for either side to abandon, and FPM’s 2018 elections platform is still pro-Hezbollah. Hezbollah and Amal, though historical foes that occasionally still clash, have learned to coexist, and their alliance will last for the foreseeable future.
March 14 is a pro-Western – or at least, anti-Syrian and anti-Iranian – alliance that believes in strengthening Lebanese sovereignty, non-interference in regional conflicts, disarming Hezbollah, and ending Syrian (and now Iranian) influence over Lebanon. It is led by Saad Hariri and his predominantly Sunni Future Movement. Its other important parties include the predominantly Maronite Christian Lebanese Forces party, led by Samir Geagea, and the Kataeb Party, led by Samy Gemayel, as well as the largely Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), led by Walid Jumblatt.
Hariri and Geagea had a falling out in December 2015, over Hariri endorsing March 8’s Frangieh for the presidency, that worsened after the premier’s resignation in November 2017. The rift was only recently mended by Saudi intervention, and whether the truce holds remains to be seen. Now, Future Movement and LF are allied in only three electoral districts, and are set to face off in four, where Hariri is allied with FPM instead. Kataeb opted for the opposition when Hariri included Hezbollah and pro-Syrians in his 2016 government. It is now competing against both Lebanese Forces and Future in some districts, in some cases allied with political foes. Jumblatt abandoned March 14 in 2011, after reconciling with Syria, and reportedly instructed his son, Taymour, to maintain friendly relations with Damascus after recently handing him the reins of PSP. Jumblatt – though friendly with Hariri – has been agitating against the premier (and Aoun), as both Futureand PSP try to curry favor with Nabih Berri.
March 14’s most serious rift is between Saad Hariri and former Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, a fellow Sunni. Once close friends, Rifi accuses Hariri of being weak on Hezbollah and Iran, and is threatening to dethrone the premier as the leader of Lebanon’s Sunnis and take away many of his Future Movement’s seats. Hariri now accuses Rifi of strengthening Hezbollah by splitting Sunni votes.
Lebanon’s new electoral law has shuffled the country’s political deck and left the outcome of elections unpredictable. Some parties, like Lebanese Forces, believe they will gain seats. By contrast, Saad Hariri’s Future Movement – currently Parliament’s largest – is expected to lose many of its seats, a likely outcome considering the stiff challenges from Sunni competitors like Ashraf Rifi and others in Future’s traditional strongholds.
Hezbollah’s Lebanese opponents long-feared that proportional representation would pave its way to seize Parliament, but the party itself expects little change to its position, and is mainly aiming to increase the number of seats held by its allies. Hezbollah – along with Amal – is likely to win most Shiite seats where it is being challenged, but faces stiff competition in Baalbek/Al-Hermel. Hezbollah is putting extra effort into ensuring none of its seats are lost to its opponents, shutting down the opposition through both intimidation and sectarian incitement. Nasrallah, who has rarely appeared in public since the 2006 war with Israel, has even vowed to personally campaign in the area in person to drive up his supporters’ participation in the elections.