Prospects for change in Lebanon's flawed political system
Welcome to The New Arab’s coverage of Lebanon’s General Election 2022 held on May 15, 2022. Follow live updates, results, analyses, and opinion in our special hub here.
The first parliamentary election since Lebanon’s 2019 uprising and financial collapse is set to take place on 15 May.
Ruling sectarian parties, which succeeded in their counterrevolutionary efforts, are now running for re-election in a bid to entrench their power and reproduce their shaken legitimacy.
A diverse yet fractured opposition is running against them, aiming to reignite hope amongst disillusioned voters who saw their savings seized by the banking sector, their capital city devastated by the Beirut port explosion, and their revolutionary desire for political change thwarted in the past two and a half years.
Although Lebanon’s regime presents itself as a representative and power-sharing democracy, its elections are far from being free and fair.
"Ruling sectarian parties, which succeeded in their counterrevolutionary efforts, are now running for re-election in a bid to entrench their power and reproduce their shaken legitimacy"
Indeed, there is limited oversight and no accountability, as the body tasked with monitoring the election – the Supervisory Commission for Elections (SCE) – lacks funding and, more importantly, the authority to pursue violations in court.
Spending ceilings are also not respected, making the electoral race far more difficult for anti-establishment groups lacking the financial and human resources to compete with their opponents’ vote-buying, media exposure, and disinformation.
The electoral law itself is also highly flawed. Although the proportional representation (PR) system was introduced in the 2018 election to improve democratic representation, it was crafted by political elites to facilitate their reappointment.
The system as a whole is known for its imposed confessional quotas, gerrymandered districts, and convoluted framework for determining elected candidates on winning lists.
Despite all these realities, opposition groups still saw opportunities in the 15 May vote. The landscape of anti-establishment actors had grown significantly since the last elections, leading to widespread calls for groups to come together and pose a serious challenge to ruling parties.
Fractured lists and opposition
The main component of Lebanon’s proportional electoral law is that it compels candidates to run on lists rather than as individuals. While many hoped that the opposition would field one united list in each district, it quickly became evident that this endeavour would not be successful.
A main point of contention that derailed these efforts is who the opposition includes and excludes.
The debate revolves around whether to ally with traditional parties that now claim to belong to the opposition, such as the Kataeb, but also with figures like Neemat Frem (a candidate in Mount Lebanon 1 and former FPM ally), or businessmen with prior dealings with the regime, like Waddah Sadek (a candidate in Beirut 2).
"While anti-establishment groups are certainly expected to perform better than they did four years ago, hopes of them constituting a significant opposition bloc in parliament are slim"
For some opposition groups, these actors are worth allying with for pragmatic purposes, including their access to electoral funding. Others, however, view such alliances as a breach of principles, not only because of their involvement with the regime but also because of their right-wing economic program.
Indeed, the disagreement over pragmatic and principles-based approaches to forming alliances is compounded by disparities in programs.
A recent study by The Policy Initiative shows that the stances of anti-establishment groups vary significantly on a number of key issues. For instance, the findings reveal that some want to make politicians and bank shareholders pay for all the financial sector losses while increasing taxes to fund a universal social protection program.
Meanwhile, others call for the privatisation of state assets to protect banking sector interests while relying on targeted social assistance programs that are less costly for large taxpayers.
Ultimately, these differences in approaches and programs either led to the withdrawal of some candidates, or to the formation of competing opposition lists.
When the dust settled, thirteen of Lebanon’s fifteen districts wound up with multiple lists claiming to represent the opposition movement.
Prospects and key battlegrounds
In spite of all these challenges, the silver lining for the opposition is that a handful of lists still have a chance to grab seats in parliament.
Both electoral districts in Beirut are key battlegrounds to monitor. Beirut 1 has the lowest electoral threshold, meaning that it’s the district where the opposition needs the lowest number of votes to win a seat.
The only anti-establishment candidate who won a seat in 2018 – Paula Yacoubian – is running for re-election on the LiWatani (For my Nation) list, but two other lists – Beirut Madinati (Beirut my City) and Qadreen (Capable) of Citizens in a State – are also competing for the oppositionist vote, which might hurt all three lists’ chances.
In Beirut 2, the Beirut al-Taghyir (Beirut Change) list is deemed to have the highest odds of breaking through, primarily due to the fact that the Future Movement – the party of former PM Saad Hariri – will not be running in its usual stronghold. Beirut al-Taghyir is one of the few lists that managed to unite different opposition groups, including the National Bloc, Tahalof Watani, Al-Marsad Al-Shaabi, and secular student clubs.
However, due to the inclusion of controversial candidates, including the aforementioned Waddah Saddek, prominent groups like LiHaqqi and Madinati withdrew from the list. Citizens in a State, though, are still running in a separate list (Qadreen) and are in fact fielding candidates across Lebanon’s fifteen districts, regardless of alliances.
The opposition also has a very good chance in Mount Lebanon 4 (Chouf-Aley), which has the lowest threshold in terms of percentage of votes. The anti-establishment list in 2018 came close to reaching the threshold and expectations are that Twahadna lil-Taghyir (United for Change) will at least obtain one seat this time.
The composition of the Twahadna lil-Taghyir list resembles Beirut al-Taghyir in that candidates do not necessarily endorse the same program but agree on basic principles and the need for pragmatic alliances. The list is also backed by the Kataeb party and Lebanese Communist Party.
"Although Lebanon's regime presents itself as a representative and power-sharing democracy, its elections are far from being free and fair"
Other districts where the opposition is deemed to have a fair chance include Mount Lebanon 2 (Metn) with the Nahwa al-Dawleh (Towards the State) list, Mount Lebanon 3 (Baabda) with the Baabda al-Taghyir (Baabda Change) list, North 3 (Bcharre-Koura-Zgharta-Batroun) with the Shamalula (Our North) list, and South 3 (Nabatieh-Bent Jbeil-Marjaayoun-Hasbaya) with the Ma’an Nahwa al-Taghyir (Together Towards Change) list.
While anti-establishment groups are certainly expected to perform better than they did four years ago, hopes of them constituting a significant opposition bloc in parliament are slim. Nonetheless, Lebanon’s prospects for change are not solely bound to its flawed electoral process.
The most pressing battle with the regime revolves around how to stop the financial sector lobby from socialising the cost of the country's collapse even more.
While a resounding loss on 15 May might be a strong blow to prospects for change, it could also be an important steppingstone for groups to shift strategies, learn from past experiences, and perhaps ally over a progressive program that can pressure the ruling class and international community to act in favour of the public good.
Nadim El Kak is a political sociologist researching social movements, counterrevolutions, and neoliberalism. He is currently based at The Policy Initiative – a newly established think tank in Beirut.
Follow him on Twitter: @NadimElkak