Lebanon’s Elections: Beyond the Iranian-Saudi Rivalry

By Emily Whalen
Saturday, May 5, 2018, 1:00 PM

Tomorrow’s parliamentary election in Lebanon is the next inflection point in the Iranian-Saudi contest to dominate the Middle East. Currently, Lebanese Members of Parliament are roughly divided between pro-Saudi and pro-Iran blocs. Ongoing proxy wars in Syria and Yemen—and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s aggressive regional stance—have added fuel to the Tehran-Riyadh antagonism. The stage seems set for a dramatic showdown, one that will have wide-ranging implications not only for the region but for Lebanon’s own fragile national security.

While the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran has had serious effects—including destroying innocent lives and wasting millions of dollars in Syria and Yemen—it does not capture the important domestic stakes with which Lebanese voters are contending. International audiences interested in regional security should to pay attention to two domestic bellwethers after the May 6 election: voter participation and the number of new members of parliament.

Lebanon’s national security depends to an unusual degree on the relationships between outside powers, and the Iran-Saudi rivalry coursing through the region is no exception. One of the most dramatic moments in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) eventful year was the forced resignation of Saudi-linked Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Most analysts agreed that the bizarre episode suggested that MBS was willing to upend Lebanese stability to force Iran out of Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is bogged down in a protracted intervention. Since gaining its independence in 1943, Lebanon has been cast as a convenient staging ground for proxy disputes: during its civil war, a struggle in Lebanon between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization opened the door for competition between Syria and Egypt, and eventually, between the United States and the Soviet Union. This trend threatens to continue: MBS’s machinations came alongside renewed talk of an Israeli war on Hezbollah in South Lebanon.

What the concerns over the Tehran-Riyadh dispute miss is that the clash amounts to a fight over slices of the regional pie, not over fundamental differences in policy or worldview (conservative theocratic governments look pretty much the same, regardless of sect). Most inhabitants of the Middle East—and certainly most Lebanese—are more interested in improving policy (and making government more effective) than in pledging loyalty to one repressive autocrat over another. At the same time, after seven years of watching civil war unfold in Syria, and with memory of Lebanon’s own civil war not far behind, few Lebanese are eager to upset the delicate regional balance that preserves peace within their borders. Out of 128 parliamentary seats, reliable sources indicate that only 38 are up for competition in the elections. In districts with open seats, rival parties are often cooperating to ensure high voter turnout—a tactic intended to increase the electoral threshold necessary to win seats. This functionally reserves the seats for the traditional political establishment by excluding independent candidates.

These thresholds vary district by district, so overall participation rates won’t paint a clear picture of establishment voters as differentiated from newcomers. Instead, overall voter turnout could provide an indication of the faith the Lebanese people have in the electoral process. Recent work by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies suggests that members of parliament and members of the Lebanese public have divergent priorities: elected representatives focus on foreign policy and national security, while the public focuses on economic concerns and unemployment. According to their studies, only nine percent of laws passed since the last parliamentary elections in 2009 have addressed concerns about basic services such as “health, education, water, and electricity.” Dozens of members of parliaments interviewed thought the unemployment rate in Lebanon (about 25 percent) was higher than 40 percent, yet failed to indicate that unemployment was a “serious concern.”

Lebanese pessimism about government is at an all-time high, particularly after a protracted garbage crisis and a long period of deadlock before the election of President Michel Aoun. If voter turnout holds at the same level as in 2009 (about 55 percent of registered voters) it will be a remarkable show of faith in the electoral process; the number of eligible voters has undoubtedly grown in the nearly 10 years since the last election. Around 90,000 new voters from the vast Lebanese diaspora are now also eligible to vote without returning to the country. Their participation rates will be important to watch because the diaspora vote may offer a model for preserving the political rights of refugees in their home countries. Additionally, there are nearly 10,000 Lebanese voters registered in the United States; those interested in voting for Hezbollah-backed candidate lists could theoretically face repercussions for providing “material support” to a group designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization.

Another aspect of the new electoral law allows citizens to cast a “preferential” vote for individual candidates on each list. This might be where how those seeking to change Lebanon’s status quo will make the greatest impact. If the next parliament opens with a slew of new faces, it will send a firm message to Lebanon’s political establishment—and their foreign backers—even if the party makeup of parliament has not changed dramatically. While some independent and civil-society lists have made waves during the election season in Lebanon (including an all-female list in the northern district of Akkar), the aforementioned threshold requirements will make it difficult for them to win seats. If larger independent coalitions, such as Kilna Watani or Sabaa, gain a seat or two, it will be an impressive feat.

Far more important than the showdown between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the building tension between those in power in Lebanon and those who are fed up with corruption, economic stagnation and a lack of political accountability. For careful watchers, Lebanon’s elections will hint at what’s brewing in the region beyond the Tehran-Riyadh scramble: entrenched elites facing rising discontent.