Did Hezbollah suffer a setback in Lebanon's election?
Western and Arab media are full of accounts that Hezbollah suffered a major setback in the Lebanese general election on 15 May.
However, there is no black and white verdict yet, with multiple nuances in assessing the results and their implications for Lebanese politics.
Firstly, Hezbollah and the Amal movement won all 27 seats allocated to the Shia community and the two setbacks they suffered in the third district of south Lebanon were for non-Shia candidates.
Hezbollah’s candidates are also represented in four out of five provinces in Lebanon, and they are the only party that has allies and can shape elections across all provinces.
And finally, Hezbollah candidates also scored the highest number of votes in areas with no Shia majority, like Beirut (Amin Sherri) and Zahle (Rami Abu Hamdan). Their Sunni ally Mohammad Yahya scored the highest vote in the Sunni stronghold of Akkar.
"Hezbollah can no longer govern alone with its allies, but its adversaries cannot force their own agenda"
Meanwhile, three of their allies won in another Sunni stronghold in Tripoli, and candidate Raed Berro scored high numbers in the key Christian majority area of Jbeil.
The decision by former prime minister Saad Hariri to suspend political activities and not have the party he leads, the Future Movement, run in the elections also created new dynamics.
This allowed Hezbollah to have a cross-sectarian alliance that includes five Sunni parliamentarians; however, they no longer have a Druze ally in the parliament.
Because of the power-sharing nature of the Lebanese sectarian system, Hezbollah will have to find a way to use the carrot and the stick in dealing with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who now has a decisive parliamentarian bloc of nine members.
However, there is a downside to this electoral assessment. Hezbollah lost all of the seats they typically allocate to non-Shia candidates that are close to the Syrian regime, as the October 2019 uprising candidates and the anti-Hezbollah camp made inroads in key districts across Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s constituents also made their leadership pay the price of making an alliance with a controversial banker linked to the financial collapse, as Marwan Kheireddine suffered a big loss facing a young lawyer from the uprising, Firas Hamdan, in the third district of south Lebanon.
So, what does the distribution of seats tell us about Hezbollah’s standing in the new parliament?
If tomorrow there were to be a parliamentary vote on whether Hezbollah’s weapons are legal or not, Hezbollah and their allies have a strong 61 votes to veto such a draft law.
However, if Hezbollah, for instance, wants to pass a law that legitimises its weapons, they will need to find 4 out of the 67 votes they do not directly control.
The composition of the new parliament can be split into three camps: the pro-Hezbollah camp (61 seats), the anti-Hezbollah camp (44 seats), uprising deputies and their allies (16 seats), and a Sunni bloc (7 seats) that includes two separate groups; five members who are remnants of the Future Movement and two members affiliated or allied with the Islamic Group.
Hence, Hezbollah can no longer govern alone with its allies, but its adversaries cannot force their own agenda. This parliament of small minority blocs, rather than a clear majority, means stalemate and frequent governance crises, which might serve Hezbollah’s interests.
The Saudi backed and now emboldened Lebanese Forces (LF) will continue to challenge Hezbollah politically.
Hezbollah can no longer claim to have an alliance with the dominant Christian party as now there is a split between the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil and the Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea.
Hezbollah can no longer claim to have Druze allies either as Druze seats are now split between Jumblatt (6) and the uprising (2), however, Hezbollah and allies fully dominate the Shia seats and have five Sunni allies represented in the parliament.
Yet, Hezbollah does not have a reliable Sunni partner and will have to find a way to continue appeasing Saad Hariri and continue cooperating with the rather vulnerable incumbent prime minister Najib Mikati.
The absence of the Future Movement from Lebanese politics offers as many challenges as opportunities for Hezbollah since it was able to acquire additional Sunni seats but will also face new Sunni adversaries inside the Parliament.
"Hezbollah's priority in the next period is to focus on the maritime dispute with Israel, decide on who to support in the next presidential election, and manage the financial collapse"
If the state becomes more dysfunctional because of the governance crisis emanating from the election (presidential elections take place in autumn), Hezbollah will not be significantly impacted since it has built an alternative to the state in its stronghold areas.
In addition to its arsenal of weapons, Hezbollah continues to control key public and security institutions and will be in no rush to decide on the cabinet formation or the presidential election if it does not serve its interests.
The question is whether Hezbollah will adapt to this new reality in Lebanese politics or confront it.
Hezbollah deputy Mohammad Raad has issued a clear warning, directed primarily at the Lebanese Forces, saying that “we accept you as opponents in parliament, but we will not accept you as shields for the Israelis”.
Supporters of Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces confronted each other violently last year, which led to the killing of seven Hezbollah followers.
Raad added “don’t become the fuel for civil war” and that “none of the enemies and opponents of this country should push you to sabotage this peace, and do not miscalculate again”.
The election will shift political dynamics toward a confrontation between Hezbollah and Lebanese Forces as both have scored a high number of votes in their respective districts.
This will weaken moderates on both sides and polarise both the cabinet formation process and the presidential election unless there is a breakthrough in the Iranian-Saudi talks that dictates some form of a deal in Lebanon.
"Hezbollah has become vulnerable and is prone to make mistakes if under pressure but remains the sole effective power in Lebanese politics until further notice"
Hezbollah can potentially resort to its weapons once again to impose its will in Lebanon, but the risk of backlash might further diminish its national appeal.
Moreover, the controversial legacy of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea makes Hezbollah’s task easier since the latter does not have the national appeal to lead the opposition and is not widely accepted in the Sunni community despite the strong Saudi support he enjoys.
Hezbollah’s priority in the next period is to focus on the maritime dispute with Israel, decide on who to support in the next presidential election, and manage the financial collapse to ease the pressure on its constituents.
The composition of the new parliament does not make addressing these daunting tasks easier.
To answer the question of whether Hezbollah suffered a setback; yes, Hezbollah’s electoral power has diminished nationally, but it also maintains nearly full control of Shia constituents.
There is no parallel or equal force that can face Hezbollah in Lebanon, whether militarily or politically.
The group’s influence remains entrenched in every aspect of the Lebanese system and despite all the talk about the election, the parliament was never a decisive institution but rather a reflection of the political distribution of power among the ruling class.
Hezbollah has become vulnerable and is prone to make mistakes if under pressure but remains the sole effective power in Lebanese politics until further notice.
Joe Macaron is a Middle East analyst and a PhD candidate at the University of Bath
Follow him on Twitter: @macaronjoe