Lebanon’s Election: Potential Departures from the Status Quo

By Emily Whalen
Wednesday, February 21, 2018, 7:00 AM

Lebanon, for once, looks relatively secure. To the south, a brewing corruption scandal threatens to upend Israel’s political establishment; to the north, the abattoir of Syria’s hijacked revolution grinds on. Despite a tense few weeks last November—when Prime Minister Saad Hariri temporarily resigned under duress—and an influx of refugees from neighboring Syria, Lebanon has largely avoided the destabilizing currents wracking the rest of the region. Lebanon’s relative security might tempt observers to assume the peaceful status quo will prevail at the ballot box on May 8. But the relationship between national security and domestic politics in Lebanon is not so straightforward. The elections, less predictable than usual thanks to the debut of new voting laws, will change the relationship between the Lebanese and their political representatives. A new electoral dynamic could very well change the political calculus between Saudi Arabia and Iran which has so far sheltered Lebanon from regional storms. In the long run, though, the change could make Lebanon far more secure.

These are the first parliamentary elections held in Lebanon since 2009, despite the constitution’s provision for electoral processes every four years. A variety of crises pushed Parliament to delay elections, rankling voters and galvanizing a campaign to change electoral laws. Politicians in Beirut finally overcame political deadlock in October 2016, electing Michel Aoun (a former army chief and Hezbollah ally) as president after more than two years without a head of state. Aoun’s election marked the start of tentative cooperation between Saad Hariri, a Saudi-backed businessman, and Hezbollah, the Iranian government’s preferred proxy in the region. It amounted to a tacit agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran that Lebanon would remain stable—for the time being.

Each of Lebanon’s eighteen recognized religious sects—the designations by which political seats are allocated—courts foreign support. As Hariri’s ill-starred trip to Riyadh last fall demonstrated, Lebanon’s sectarian system means that it is particularly exposed to the whims of outside powers. Summoned by his Saudi backers to Riyadh in early November, Hariri shocked his staff and constituents by announcing his immediate resignation. Hariri claimed Iran and Hezbollah’s “meddling” in the affairs of the Arab world prompted the surprise resignation. But the timing—and Hariri’s apparent inability to return to Lebanon at will—made some suspect the move was a clumsy effort by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to check Iranian influence in the region by destabilizing Beirut. If so, the prince overplayed his hand. President Aoun and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah failed to take the bait and, after some tricky diplomatic maneuvering on the part of French President Emmanuel Macron, Hariri managed to return to Lebanon and walk back his resignation.

The precipitating event for this bizarre political pantomime was a meeting between Hariri and Ali Akbar Velayati, a political adviser to Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei. Back in 2016, Hariri had to convince his Saudi supporters that his compromise with Aoun would mitigate Tehran’s interference in Beirut. Apparently, the meeting with Velayati was a bridge too far. In Lebanon, the day-to-day functioning of government—even apparently routine meetings—carry the risk of angering powerful foreign patrons. As a result, many Lebanese politicians avoid that risk entirely. This is part of the reason why the corollary of Lebanon’s national security has been profound domestic political inertia. Basic services and responsive government are part of the price of national security in Lebanon.

The day-to-day burden of national security has fallen to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF, not to be confused with the Lebanese Forces, a political party). Coordinating with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon in the south, and tacitly cooperating with Hezbollah’s forces in the northwest, the LAF has managed to contain spillover from the Syrian Civil War. The LAF’s successful Operation Fajr el Jouroud last year largely pushed Daesh militants out of Lebanon’s borders. Despite these victories, the security-for-services tradeoff is not lost on military leadership, who have emphasized in recent years the importance of balancing Lebanon’s security with cultivating “sustainable development.” A retired general’s recent op-ed in An- Nahar, one of Lebanon’s leading newspapers, cautioned lawmakers that “national security is not limited to stability,” but instead depends on respect for the Lebanese constitution, economic growth and “building a democratic state.”

Since its independence from France in 1943, Lebanon’s electoral system has followed sectarian allocations—the foundation of its “consociational democracy.” Seats in parliament and positions in government are reserved for members of the 18 different religious sects that Lebanon recognizes: for example, Lebanon’s president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament a Shi’a Muslim. An often-overlooked element of this arrangement is its inherent elitism. The system incentivizes elites of each sectarian designation to cooperate with each other and maintain antagonistic divisions between sects, preventing political mobilization around specific issues. Without issue-based platforms, sectarian elites lack meaningful electoral accountability to their Lebanese constituents. As a result, the interests of outside powers take precedence over the interests of Lebanese voters.

In this context, Lebanon’s upcoming elections merit close attention. One of the fruits of the Aoun-Hariri cooperation—reinforced by the president’s deft maneuvering while Hariri languished in Riyadh last fall—has been the adoption of a new electoral law. Among other changes, the law permits citizens in Lebanon’s sizeable diaspora to vote (90,000 of whom have registered so far), reduces the number of electoral districts in the country (from 26 to 15), and, most significantly, replaces the current plurality system with a system of proportional representation, increasing the sectarian diversity of MPs within each district.

While some new political alliances appear to be consolidating in response to the law, there are few certainties in Lebanese politics. Predictable sectarian jostling has occupied headlines in the past few weeks, a sure sign that the political elite are hoping to consolidate support within their respective bases. Saudi Arabia could leverage its outsized power over the Lebanese economy at any moment, initiating a profound economic crisis. If Prince Mohammad bin Salman launched an economic boycott of Lebanon as he did with Qatar last summer, the Lebanese economy—which relies on remittances from the Gulf—would disintegrate in a matter of weeks. In the lead-up to May 8, the country’s national security will undoubtedly become a touchpoint for politicians nervous about their seats. Recent public spats over Lebanon’s internal and external fault Iines (sectarian tensions and the Israeli border, respectively) smack more of political theater than substantive threats. Yet the Lebanese Parliament could plausibly use any of these factors to delay elections once more in the name of “national security,” even if doing so might spark popular unrest.

American engagement in the Middle East remains heavily centered on security and the status quo. But, as Lebanon’s military leaders understand, a stagnant status quo can undermine security in the long run. It is not yet clear how much or how little the new law will affect Lebanon’s elections—a robust debate is already underway. Neither is it clear how the foreign powers aligned with various Lebanese political actors will react to significant shifts in Beirut. What is clear is that the new electoral law—which many Lebanese welcomed enthusiastically—might disrupt almost 9 years of status quo.