Lebanon's Parliamentary Elections Offer No Hope for a Benighted Country | Opinion

Lebanese Twitter lit up on May 15, when the country held parliamentary elections. Hopes ran high. Since October 2019, the country has suffered one of the worst economic crises in recorded history, with the national currency losing 95 percent of its value amid a banking crisis that has effectively frozen the accounts of all but the very well connected.

Nearly 80 percent of the population has been reduced to poverty. More than half of Lebanese are not food secure. Basic utilities like electricity and water are scarce. Hundreds of thousands have emigrated, with some 77 percent of young people saying they would like to follow suit and never return. In August 2020, the largest non-nuclear explosion in a city since World War II devastated Lebanon's capital, Beirut, killing more than 200 people, injuring thousands more and inflicting billions in damage.

Multilateral international aid packages have been on the table since April 2018, but are conditioned on far-reaching political reforms and a comprehensive forensic audit of the Lebanese banking sector. Despite the gravity of the crisis, Lebanon's political overlords—a coterie of corrupt politicians who have ruled the country since its civil war ended in 1990—have stonewalled any effort at accountability. It is widely believed that these politicians fear losing power in the wake of proposed reforms, and that an audit of the banks will implicate all or almost all of them in serious financial crimes spanning decades.

Mostly peaceful protests have at times brought hundreds of thousands of Lebanese into the streets, but as in so many failing states the regime's military and internal security forces reliably contain them until they peter out. A small and rather hapless stratum of Westernized progressives complains on social media, invests unwarranted hope in a largely indifferent international community and contents itself with small-deeds liberalism.

Sunday's parliamentary elections seemed to offer the best way forward. Many independent candidates drawn from Lebanon's wafer-thin professional upper-middle class ran for the country's 128 parliamentary seats, seeking to challenge the standing political elite, while existing parties hoped to oust the Iran-backed, pro-Hezbollah coalition that has held a majority since the last elections, in 2018.

Hezbollah, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and many other countries, and which maintains its own armed forces, is widely blamed for high-profile assassinations within Lebanon, terrorist attacks around the world, and the August 2020 explosion in Beirut. Nevertheless, despite some reported violence, intimidation, and old-fashioned ballot theft, preliminary results indicate that 13 independents won election this time, whereas only one did in 2018. The pro-Hezbollah coalition lost nine seats, costing it its parliamentary majority but still leaving it the largest single parliamentary block with 62 deputies.

Lebanese flag
A supporter of Lebanon's Muslim Shiite movement Hezbollah and its Amal party allies waves the national flag near the Justice Palace in the capital Beirut on October 14, 2021, during a gathering to demand the dismissal of the Beirut blast lead investigator. JOSEPH EID / AFP/Getty Images

For many Lebanese, these rebuffs to the establishment were enough to claim victory. In practice, however, they are only the beginning of a very hard road. For all their enthusiasm, the 13 newly elected independents will hold just over 10 percent of the parliamentary seats, with nearly 90 percent remaining in establishment hands. The independents may benefit from a national platform, but they have no substantive program apart from shared outrage at the status quo and a vague allegiance to an international Left that barely knows or cares that they exist. Only one of them has any prior experience in legislative government, while the regime politicians have long proved themselves adept at manipulating procedure, obfuscating reform and sapping initiative.

A few of the newly elected independents have announced their intention to name and shame evildoers in Lebanon's political establishment—a dangerous habit in a country where political assassination has been a fact of life for nearly half a century. It also remains to be seen whether they have the probity to withstand Lebanon's pervasive corruption, or the wisdom to make productive compromises with an establishment they claim to despise.

While the independents will be little more than a fringe annoyance, real power will remain with Lebanon's political class. Here, too, the path forward is fraught with uncertainty. The pro-Hezbollah faction remains highly disciplined and well-funded by its backers in Tehran, while its opposition's new majority is divided and diffuse. Hezbollah's most traditionally powerful domestic opponent, the Sunni Muslim Future Movement, and its leader—former prime minister Saad Hariri—boycotted the elections, leaving the mantle of anti-Hezbollah resistance to the Lebanese Forces, a far more militant Christian party. It is far from likely that the opposition parties will, even with a majority, be able to compel the reforms and bank audits necessary to secure foreign aid or govern effectively in any other way. Hezbollah, moreover, has historically been able to maintain its separate military forces and de facto control over Lebanon's foreign and defense policies even when election results consigned it to the minority. This was the case after the parliamentary elections of 2005 and 2009, when it and its coalition partners on both occasions polled minorities of just 57 seats, five fewer than it has now.

Even if the anti-Hezbollah opposition does coalesce into a functional majority, the peculiarities of Lebanon's constitutional system pose yet another obstacle to any meaningful progress. Under the terms of a power-sharing agreement dating back to the country's founding, Lebanon's president, who is elected by the legislature, must be a Maronite Christian, while its prime minister must be Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim. Current president Michel Aoun, a Christian ally of Hezbollah, will turn 89 in September, and his term in office ends the following month. A leading contender to succeed him is his son-in-law, former foreign minister Gebran Bassil, who stinks of corruption so pungently that he is both sanctioned by the U.S. government and arguably the country's most hated man.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who has announced that he will not seek reappointment, has no obvious successor. The last time a prime minister left office, it took Lebanon's parliamentarians 13 months to form a new government, even with a pro-Hezbollah majority. During such an interregnum, in Lebanon's political system the last government remains in office as a "caretaker" administration, with reduced powers but no clear end date. This means that despite the election results, the pro-Hezbollah government now in power may well stay in power, perhaps for a very long time. And even if an anti-Hezbollah government is eventually installed, all Shiite Muslims in the new parliament are part of the pro-Hezbollah faction, guaranteeing that Hezbollah will retain undisputed control of the speakership and thus parliamentary procedure and the flow of legislation.

It may be too early to dismiss Lebanon as Somalia with ski slopes, but a better future can ultimately depend only on its people's willingness to secure the rights they say they want. Their surest path may not be through the ballot box.

Paul du Quenoy is president and publisher of Academica Press. He was a professor of history at the American University of Beirut from 2008 to 2019.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.