Despite predictions that it would be postponed or even cancelled, Lebanon’s parliamentary elections went ahead as scheduled on Sunday, when voters went to the polls to elect a 128-member parliament in accordance with the country’s system of proportional representation.
Against many predictions and in a surprise result, the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah lost its majority in parliament, securing only half or slightly less than half of the seats. While it may have held onto its own seats, it lost in terms of the seats held by its Maronite, Catholic, and even Druze and Sunni allies.
In Lebanon’s religiously heterogeneous society, seats in parliament are distributed among the country’s various Muslim and Christian denominations on the basis of their relative demographic weight in parliamentary constituencies.
In this year’s elections, the parliament was supposed to have six new seats reserved to represent Lebanese voters abroad. However, the relevant amendment to the country’s electoral law was not passed on time, and the Lebanese abroad cast their votes for lists competing for the 128 existing seats.
Many people refused to vote in the elections, feeling that the results would be a foregone conclusion and would do nothing to alter the power structure and the grip of the longstanding ruling elites. One of the main advocates of a boycott was former Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri, who withdrew from politics earlier this year leaving the Sunni denomination without a prominent representative.
Calls for a boycott of the elections, among Lebanon’s Sunnis in particular, gained impetus after a boat carrying illegal migrants capsized off the coast of Tripoli in Lebanon on 24 April, three weeks before they were due to take place. In their distress and anger at the incident, a reminder of the hardships that lead many to risk their lives in search of a better future abroad, many people in the predominantly Sunni north of Lebanon vowed not to vote in protest.
Some Lebanese Sunni leaders, such as former prime minister Najib Mikati and Sunni mufti Abdel-Latif Al-Derian, tried to counter the trend, urging citizens to do their duty and vote.
The boycott movement was particularly problematic given that these were the first elections since the grassroots uprising in October 2019 in protest against the country’s severe economic straits and corruption and mismanagement, grievances that became even more strident after the Beirut Port explosions in the summer of 2020.
There was thus a large and growing body of opinion desperate to see the rise of a new political elite or at least to punish the old guard through the ballot box.
Initially, it was widely expected that the turnout in the elections would be high, driven by a thirst for change in the faces and policies that drove Lebanon to the brink of bankruptcy. But as the elections approached, the hopes pinned on civil society forces, especially those that had risen with the protest movement, dissipated because these forces proved unable to work together or organise unified electoral lists.
They thus remained fragmented and dispersed among numerous factions or cliques, and the “lists for change,” as many were called, ended up competing with each other rather than challenging the established elites.
While the forces of change were split between four or five different lists per district, the main lists representing the ruling coalition – the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Hizbullah, the Amal Movement, and their allies – and the opposition coalition – the Lebanese Forces, the Takaddom (Socialist Progressive) Party, the National Liberal Party, and the Kataeb Party – faced each other.
Given the disarray among the forces of change and the poor chances that their lists would clear the parliamentary threshold, many voters gave up hope in them and decided to cast their votes for the existing opposition coalition instead, which generally opposes Hizbullah and the policies that its ally, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, has pursued during his term in office starting in 2016.
Despite its intention to change the current balance of power, it is impossible to deny that the members of the opposition coalition are part of the same political elites that Lebanese young people rose up against three years ago.
Perhaps because of the tensions and the gravity of the issues at stake, the electoral process was flawed by numerous violations. Some were non-violent and took the form of bribes and vote-purchasing, telling voters in polling stations who to vote for and violating the prohibition against campaigning or other attempts to sway the vote while the polls were still open.
But there were also some incidents of violence, such as brawls between representatives of rival candidates in polling stations, stone-throwing skirmishes outside polling stations, and even an attempt on the part of one candidate’s supporters to run over a rival candidate.
The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) reported 3,500 breaches of various severity on election day alone. Documented violations may be forwarded to the Constitutional Council, which investigates such issues and determines whether the breaches are severe enough to merit the nullification of the results reported from individual polling stations.
Voter turnout was “reasonable,” as Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati put it. Inside Lebanon, 41 per cent of the 3.9 million registered voters reported to the polls, down from 49 per cent in the 2018 parliamentary elections.
The boycott on the part of a large portion of Sunni voters explains much of the decline. The lowest turnout rates were in Beirut and Tripoli, which have the largest Sunni populations, while the highest rates were in the Keserwan - Jbeil district, where the Christian competition was the highest. Participation was also intense in the predominantly Shia regions in the south.
In general, the higher the voter turnout in Lebanon, the harder it is for less popular lists to pass the electoral threshold and obtain a seat in parliament. According to the Lebanese electoral system, the number of valid votes cast in each constituency is divided by the number of seats to be filled. This gives the electoral threshold. The higher the turnout in a particular district, the higher the threshold, or the number of votes a list must receive in order to win a seat in parliament.
That mostly puts the forces of change out of the running in high-turnout districts in particular since they are split between four or five lists per district.
However, if all this could have been expected, the results did pack a surprise as the opposition made significant inroads. Above all, the Lebanese Forces Party won 20 seats, up from 14 in the last parliament, with its gains coming at the expense of its main rival, the Free Patriotic Movement, which came away with only 18 seats.
This Christian ally of Hizbullah thus saw a decline in the number of its seats against an increase in the number held by the Lebanese Forces, which stands against Hizbullah. It emerged as the largest Christian bloc and the one and only unified bloc in the new parliament. In other words, the fortunes of Hizbullah’s Christian ally sank, while those of one of Hizbullah’s main opponents rose. Hizbullah and Amal retained all the Shia seats (27), defeating rival Shia contenders.
Some new faces from the Forces of Change did succeed: in the Beirut 1 district (where it won two seats), Beirut 2 (three seats), Aley-Chouf (three seats), Bekaa (one seat), North Tripoli (four seats), and in the South (two seats). The latter district is significant because it is the hardest for the opposition parties to make a dent in, as the region is a Hizbullah stronghold.
As a whole, the Forces of Change won a total of 15 seats, which might rise if any of the independent figures in parliament join it. The Kataeb also scored a gain from three to five seats, according to the preliminary results, while the Takkadomy retained the nine seats it held in the previous parliament.
The Druze, allied with Hizbullah, lost their seats in favour of the Forces of Change. Therefore, while Hizbullah may have held on to its own seats, it lost in terms of the seats held by its allies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.