Divisions, coalitions, and the IMF: What's next for Lebanon after elections?
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.
On 15 May, Lebanese voters made history. A slew of independent candidates were voted into parliament: a first for a country dominated by sectarian political parties.
The previous election in 2018 only gave one seat to an independent; 13 were voted in this year.
“Change has begun,” Carol Malouf, the communications and political advisor of the newly-elected independent MP Najat Aoun, told The New Arab.
The independents were not the only ones celebrating this weekend. The Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party and former civil war militia, won 19 seats, replacing Gebran Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) as the largest Christian bloc in the legislative body.
And in perhaps what was the largest upset, the pro-Hezbollah bloc lost its parliamentary majority which it had maintained since 2018.
"A slew of independent candidates were voted into parliament: a first for a country dominated by sectarian political parties"
While the victors celebrated, Lebanon’s currency took a nosedive, in a grim reminder that the economic crisis would wait for no one. By Wednesday the Lebanese lira was trading at 30,000 per dollar – the highest it had been since January.
The road ahead of the incoming government is fraught with challenges. Candidates’ electoral slogans painted a picture of a more functional, more utopic Lebanon.
However, whether or not the new MPs will be able to deliver on their promises and make Lebanon functional, depends on their ability to work together in parliament.
A hung parliament?
The formation of Lebanon’s incoming parliament is unclear, but it seems likely there will be three major blocs.
The first is the pro-Hezbollah bloc. This is comprised of the so-called 'Shia duo' of Hezbollah and the Amal movement, as well as the FPM and other minor allies. This bloc comprises roughly 57 MPs.
The second bloc is made of the pro-Saudi Lebanese Forces and allies, who have roughly 22 MPs.
The third is the anti-establishment bloc. This bloc comes out to around 19 MPs, though the number can change depending on what is considered 'anti-establishment'.
It remains to be seen how these new blocs will interact with each other and whether parliamentary realities will affect campaign rivalries.
"In perhaps what was the largest upset, the pro-Hezbollah bloc lost its parliamentary majority"
Both the Lebanese Forces and the anti-establishment bloc campaigned against Hezbollah and its alleged complicity in the country’s path to economic and political failure. The Hezbollah bloc likewise has a long-standing enmity with the Lebanese Forces and lost key seats to the independents in the 2022 elections.
The unity of the anti-establishment bloc is also in question. The independent and opposition candidates come from multiple different electoral lists and have different political ideologies. They are together in their opposition to the status quo, but that might not translate into unified policy-making.
“The political program that most opposition candidates communicated, you can see most converge on similar topics and necessary reforms. However, this issue gets a bit more tricky when it comes to lobbying within parliament and actually enforcing legislation,” Samer Makarem, the secretary of the opposition party Mintishreen, told The New Arab.
The independent camp was unable to form a unified platform and run together on one list in the 2022 elections. This was in part due to “purity tests” that were being conducted by independent candidates, a former opposition candidate Fadi Khoury said.
Parties that were formed out of the ideas of the October 2019 revolution, when millions took to the streets in protest of corruption, oftentimes bickered over who was really 'independent'.
It’s possible that these divisions will carry on into the parliament and could potentially undermine the bloc’s ability to operate as a unit.
Further, the relationship between the Lebanese Forces and the anti-establishment bloc is not well defined. The former ran an anti-corruption and reform campaign, and differentiated itself from the opposition, which it painted as inept.
The latter largely views the Lebanese Forces as co-opting the revolution’s slogans and riding the so-called Thawra wave.
They also are suspicious of the group’s history, whose time as a civil war militia saw it commit some of the most heinous crimes of the era. The most notorious of these sins include the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre when the Lebanese Forces slaughtered thousands of Palestinian and Shia civilians under Israeli supervision.
However, it could be that some independents believe the Lebanese Forces are genuine in their attempts to fix the ailing Lebanese state. Or it could be that their views on Hezbollah align enough for them to come together on key policy issues and official appointments.
Nabih Berri: Target #1
Taking down long-standing Hezbollah ally, Nabih Berri, who has occupied the speaker of the house position for 30 years, is a priority for the Lebanese Forces and independents.
Independent candidates have expressed similar ambitions. Mr Berri is one of the most recognisable figures of the Lebanese establishment and is famed for his alleged tendency for corruption.
A popular joke in the south of Lebanon is that one cannot build a new extension to your house without first giving 51 percent of it to his wife, Randa Berri.
“The first thing for us is to reorganise our block. Then tackle the first campaign which is the election of the speaker of the parliament. We need a speaker who is fully Lebanese and has a fully Lebanese agenda,” Marc Saad, a communications official for the Lebanese Forces, told The New Arab.
Parliamentary customs, and the still-strong showing that Hezbollah has in the body, make it difficult to oust Berri. An unspoken agreement in Lebanon says that the speaker of the house must be a Shia Muslim, while the deputy will be a Greek Orthodox Christian, the PM a Sunni, and the president a Maronite.
There are no independent alternatives to Nabih Berri, as all of the Shias elected to the parliament are affiliated with Hezbollah or Amal.
“Berri will be sworn in simply based on mathematics. No other Shia candidates will stand against Berri for election. Even if the LF, Kataeb, and independent candidates all abstain from the vote, I believe that the [other bloc] will push Berri forward,” Makarem said.
A more achievable objective might be influencing who will replace Michel Aoun as president of Lebanon when his term comes up in October. In Lebanon, the parliament elects the president.
Previously it was believed that the pro-Hezbollah bloc would push forward either Gebran Bassil – who is the son-in-law of president Aoun – or Suleiman Frangieh, a former MP affiliated with the Maronite Marada movement.
With the pro-Hezbollah bloc having lost its majority, however, the election of the next president is up in the air.
"The prospect of a split parliament, regardless of who owns the moral high ground, is dangerous for Lebanon"
Stemming the economic haemorrhage
The prospect of a split parliament, regardless of who owns the moral high ground, is dangerous for Lebanon.
Lebanon’s economic crisis is worsening by the day and urgent action is needed to stop it. The previous government, led by PM Najib Mikati, enacted few policies save the cutting of some subsidies.
Even the cutting of these subsidies was not motivated by proactive policymaking, but simply because the government was running out of money.
Lebanon’s central bank is quickly running out of foreign reserves, with the latest report indicating that reserves had dipped below $10 billion.
Without foreign reserves, the value of the country’s currency will continue to collapse and hyperinflation will worsen. To the average Lebanese consumer who earns in lira, this will be a disaster.
The one light at the end of the tunnel lies with the IMF. On 7 April, the IMF and Lebanon reached a staff-level agreement for $3 billion to restore financial stability to the country.
The deal is widely seen as the country’s first step towards exiting its economic quagmire.
However, accessing these funds is predicated on Lebanon’s government making key economic reforms, including the passing of a capital control law and releasing the Lebanese lira’s peg to the dollar.
The path forward on these measures is not clear. Independents and opposition are likely to clash with the traditional establishment parties, whose interests often align with the country’s oligarchs.
Inaction, as Lebanon has had for the last two-and-a-half years, will only lead the country further down its economic spiral. If the parliament is unable to agree on a compromise, it will be the country which suffers.
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou