Saturday, June 06, 2009

Explaining Lebanon's Parliamentary Elections: The Players, Stakes, & Projections

A Lebanese Shi'i woman holds a poster of Hizbullah leader al-Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah

Old Wine in Older Skins: Lebanon Elects Another Parliament

By Heiko Wimmen

Middle East Report Online [June 3, 2009]

(Heiko Wimmen is a PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin. He was a program manager for the Middle East office of the German Heinrich Böll Foundation, a German organization supporting civil society and social movements around the world from 2004 to 2009.)

On June 8, when all votes are cast and counted between the glitzy urban quarters of Beirut and the dusty hamlets of the Bekaa valley, the Lebanese elections will have produced one certain winner: the local advertising industry. Despite a newly imposed cap on campaign spending, candidates have been falling over each other to plaster the billboards along the roads and highways of this miniscule country with their oversized likenesses and airy slogans. Crowded out by the politicians, some peddlers of more pedestrian seasonal merchandise have retaliated in kind, with a brand of cheap fruit juice poking fun at notorious practices of vote rigging by promising democracy "extra," thus drawing attention to its product by the same name, while the only locally produced beer brand declared itself "victorious for lack of competition" already three months ago -- true to the form of much of the electoral contest.

Such sarcasm seems well warranted as the ballot on June 7 will not only be substandard rather than extra on the procedural level, but will almost certainly produce old wine in even older skins. Once again, the Lebanese parliament will be dominated by an unpalatable mix of militia leaders hanging on from the civil war era, multi-millionaire entrepreneurs who flourished in the two decades since and some remnants of the traditional political elite responsible for the original disaster. Even more ominously, it will once again be hung between two camps bitterly opposed over differences that appear impossible to bridge, and which brought the country to the brink of a new civil war only one year ago. External actors with agendas of their own and little compassion for the lot of a small country fuel this conflict, while local actors attempt to pursue their own interests on the back of such foreign intervention, and mobilize identity politics and sectarian sentiment for that purpose.

A Future Movement supporter holds aloft a poster of "saint" Rafiq Hariri, the assassinated leader of the party before his son, Junior, took over.

A Country Divided

On one side, the opposition, supported by Syria and Iran, views struggle against Israel and American designs on the region as a national and, for some, a religious imperative that cannot be subject to compromise. The main players in the opposition include the Shi‘i political parties Hizballah and Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement of former Army General Michel Aoun, who has to some extent managed to reconcile the traditional Lebanese nationalism of his Christian constituency with the much broader, pan-Islamic vision of his Shi‘i allies. Aoun's movement also focuses, in a populist vein, on clientelism and corruption in the government camp (while conveniently ignoring similar practices of some members of the opposition) and the need for political reform.[1]

Retired Lebanese general Michel 'Aoun, leader of one of the country's largest Christian political parties, the Maronite Free Patriotic Movement, which is one of the three largest parties in the March 8 National Opposition coalition. His constituents are primarily working class Maronites and other Christians.

The Western -- and especially US -- backed government majority with the Sunni Future Movement as its political backbone and the Druze community and some Christian groups as allies, strives to prevent further involvement in regional conflicts, and views the military structures and arsenal of Hizballah as a liability. Just like their regional supporters (in particular Saudi Arabia), they are in favor of forging an alliance of "moderate" Arab states against alleged Iranian encroachment on the region and, by extension, renewed Syrian encroachment on Lebanese sovereignty. Prosperity and development, in their mind, will be achieved chiefly through an environment favorable for tourism and foreign investment, and Hizballah's propensity to involve Lebanon in regional conflict will thereby impede this objective.

A huge Hizbullah rally in Beirut. The green flags of the Shi'i party AMAL and the orange flags of 'Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement can also be seen.

In particular since the July 2006 war, these two camps confront each other with deep mutual distrust: while the government accuses Hizballah of sacrificing Lebanon for Syrian and Iranian interests, Hizballah maintains that the government collaborated with the enemy during the war and intends to turn Lebanon into an auxiliary of an Israeli-American political and economic hegemony over the region. Things came to a head in the spring of 2008, when an 18 month-long constitutional crisis paralyzing much of the political system culminated in five days of street battles that led to ignominious defeat for the government camp and its proto-militias[2] by paramilitary units of Hizballah and its auxiliaries.[3] The crisis was defused by an unusually swift and efficient mediation effort by the Arab League, and a summit of Lebanese leaders convened in the Qatari capital Doha led to the formation of a "Government of National Unity," largely on the terms of the opposition.

The Sectarian Template

While ostensibly at odds over issues of existential national importance, such as how and against whom to defend the country, and how to build an efficient state, in reality all sides draw upon and sometimes fan sectarian sentiment and fear for much of their mobilization.[4]

In the government camp, fervent hostility to the Syrian regime galvanized the previously docile Sunni community and united it behind the heirs of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri after the latter's assassination in 2005 -- still blamed, despite crumbling evidence, on the Alawi (and hence vaguely Shi‘i) regime in Damascus. This has been gradually blended with the community's wariness at the political rise of Lebanon’s Shi‘i community.[5] Fears of an imminent "Shi‘i hegemony" over Lebanon greatly increased after the Future Movement proved unable to defend Beirut -- perceived as a "Sunni city" by the community -- against the "Shi‘i takeover" of May 2008. Its Christian allies largely follow their traditional positions of defending the independence of Lebanon as the only Middle Eastern country where Christians can wield power, and favoring strong bonds with the West -- positions shared by the Future Movement (albeit for motives of which many Christians remain skeptical). The Druze, for their part, typically follow the bold tactical maneuvers of their leader Walid Jumblat that have helped his community to exert political influence far beyond its demographic weight.

Raw recruits: Members of the Future Movement's ragtag militias which fell apart in May 2008 when pitted against Hizbullah paramilitaries and AMAL militiamen. Despite receiving millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia and the U.S., whose governments hoped Junior Hariri would be able to build a paramilitary force equal to that of Hizbullah, the Hariri militiamen fled in fear or surrendered. Prof. As'ad Abu Khalil explains why HERE.

Hizballah, in contrast, has consistently reached out to Arab-nationalist tendencies in the Sunni community, in particular by emphasizing the Palestinian cause, and strives to downplay the sectarian character of its own political support base. Yet the rhetoric, rituals and vision of the movement remain steeped in Shi‘i popular memory of centuries of oppression at the hands of Sunni elites. While the party has succeeded in transposing such resentment into a stand against Israel and the US as the oppressors of our age, slippage is liable to occur once the adversary is seen as acting in cahoots with these enemies. The self-confidence displayed by Shi‘i interlocutors in the wake of the events of 2006 and 2008 is somewhat compromised by the perception of being a small minority surrounded by militantly anti-Shi‘i regimes, in particular the rulers of Saudi Arabia, and increasingly Egypt, and by the enormous economic power wielded by some of these actors. Similar fears of minority marginalization and Sunni extremism, a history of competition with the Sunnis over power in the state and the civil war baggage of intra-Christian fratricidal conflict (in particular with Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea) are also important motivations that brought Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement into its rather unlikely alliance with the Shi‘i parties.

Buddies: Junior Hariri (left) and former Maronite warlord Samir Ja'Ja (right), head of the Lebanese Forces party, a more radical offshoot of the Phalange party, the party which collaborated with Israel during that country's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Projections of a Photo Finish

Since both sides to the intra-Muslim conflict command the near total loyalty of their respective sectarian communities, voting in predominantly Muslim areas will amount to little more than a census at the ballot box. The Shi‘i parties Hizballah and Amal are expected to carry up to 35 seats in the overwhelmingly Shi‘i regions of South Lebanon and the Northern half of the Bekaa Valley, while the Future Movement will prevail in the staunchly Sunni North and among the Sunni population of the coastal cities, likewise securing around 35 out of a total of 128 seats. The loyalist camp can also, for now, count on the support of the mercurial Walid Jumblat, whose overwhelming support in the Druze community gives him control over about twelve seats, and tipping power for some additional three or four.

Things are slightly more complicated in the Christian camp, where social cleavages and sectarian and regional differences overlap with bitter memories from the civil war. Upwardly mobile and merit-oriented middle class Christians tend to buy into the reform rhetoric of the Aoun movement, while several "old" and wealthy "political families" on the government side still command significant support. Many Orthodox voters tend to favor Aoun (who is Maronite) for his pan-Christian and Lebanese-nationalist stance over the Maronite-centered perspective of the traditional Christian leadership. Those who live in areas which were controlled by the Lebanese Forces during the Civil War tend to have particularly unfavorable opinions of Samir Geagea. On balance, and despite the mantra of "Aoun's waning popularity among the Christians" that has been repeated by his detractors ever since he allied himself with Hizballah, on June 7 the Free Patriotic Movement and its assorted allies are likely to harvest between 25 and 30 seats, while the Christian parties loyal to the government may garner around ten.

With both camps securing around sixty "safe" seats, victory and defeat in these elections hinges on some eight seats (out of 128) where the race has not been pre-decided by the electoral partition adopted at the Doha conference,[6] and where the result actually depends on the parties' ability to bring out the vote. Most pollsters are expecting a slight advantage for the opposition, albeit by a very slim margin (three to four seats). Yet as there are several districts where the race is simply too close for precise polling a majority for the government camp is also a possibility, or even a completely hung parliament.

Post-Election Scenarios

In the event of an opposition win, Future Movement leader Saad Hariri has repeatedly rejected calls to join a new "Government of National Unity," which is the declared preference of Hizballah in such a scenario. Whether or not this position is to be taken at face value or understood as tactically motivated to rally support for his Christian allies through creating the doomsday scenario of a Hizballah-dominated government, Hariri is likely to come under pressure to backpedal from this position if the opposition wins in order to avoid renewed polarization. Since the position of the Prime Minister is reserved for a Sunni, appointing a new head of government without the consensus of the Future Movement would inevitably lead to widespread alienation in the Sunni community, accusations of " Shi‘i encroachment" on a centerpiece of Sunni power, and a further deepening of the sectarian divide.

Sa'd "Junior" Hariri (center) at a rally of his Saudi-backed Sunni political party, Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (Future Movement)

Hizballah, on the other hand, has reportedly been testing the ground for possible international reception of a government in which it would take a significant share, apparently with largely positive results.[7] While an international boycott of Lebanon along the lines of what happened to the Palestinian government after Hamas won elections in 2005 can be ruled out, relations with the US will likely cool off, and development aid drop, as announced by Vice President Joe Biden in a recent visit to Beirut clearly intended to shore up the fortunes of the government majority.[8]

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden (right) visits with current Lebanese prime minister and Hariri ally Fouad Siniora (left). Biden delivered a speech where he essentially threatened to cut off U.S. aid if the Lebanese do not vote the way the U.S. administration wants. He also visited solely with members of the March 14 ruling coalition, unambiguously showing the Obama administration's partisan positioning in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

If defeated by a narrow margin, the opposition will nevertheless insist on retaining the political gains achieved in Doha, and remain a junior partner with veto power[9] in the new government. Judging from the outcome of the constitutional crisis of 2006-08, the majority will have no choice but to yield, even if it were to defend its share in parliament, leading again to the formation of a National Unity Government and maintaining the status quo.

However, apart from a morale boost for the camp securing a slim majority, neither scenario will signal a dramatic shift in either internal or external Lebanese politics, as the consensus principle built into the Lebanese political system provides a wide array of procedural vetoes and obstructive options that make it practically impossible for any parliamentary majority to impose its political preferences on a determined opposition. Since those mechanisms are especially designed to prevent the marginalization of any one of the major sectarian communities, they are even more effective if at least one of the communities left out of government is united behind a strong leadership, which is clearly the case in the current configuration. Barring spectacular post-electoral defections,[10] the political landscape as of June 8 is thus not likely to change decisively.

Banner with the portraits of the leaders of the three largest parties in the March 8 National Opposition (from left): Michel 'Aoun, al-Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, and AMAL's Nabih Berri.

In the prolonged negotiation and bargaining process that will follow the elections in any possible scenario, much will also depend on the regional and international environment, in particular whether relations between the US and Iran move towards détente and diplomacy, or towards coercion and conflict. According to Osama Safa, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), "our elections really pale in comparison to the Iranian elections, which are only five days later, and which decide how extremist Iran will be. This will weigh heavily on the situation here: if we get a continuation of the Ahmadinejad presidency, then Iran's local allies will play a much harder ball than before. If a more moderate figure prevails, then we will also see a more moderate, centrist negotiation behavior here."

The Electoral Economy of Clientelism and Dependency

Between all the battles over existential questions of national identity and foreign policy, precious little time and attention is left for questions relating to the actual needs and worries of Lebanese citizens. Daily power cuts of between three and twelve hours still keep much of Lebanon dependent on expensive and polluting diesel generators. In the most water-rich country of the Middle East, drinking water only reaches most households every other day, for some six to eight hours, and in some regions only once a week at the end of summer. Open garbage dumps litter the country and the coast, and most of the raw sewage produced by four million Lebanese goes straight into the sea. Unemployment stands anywhere between 20 or 30 percent, in particular among youth. But the most crippling shortage for any Lebanese family subsiding on a normal family income[11] is the disastrous state of the public education system.

The Dahiya (suburbs) of Beirut, after massive Israeli airstrikes in heavily populated civilian neighborhoods during the summer of 2006.

The "Saida National School" run by the charitable Maarouf Saad Foundation is tucked away in a historical, painstakingly renovated khan in the maze of the old city of Saida (Sidon), thirty kilometers south of Beirut. Some 200 children receive elementary school education there, mostly hailing from low income families in the area, who pay a nominal annual fee of some $400 per child per year, less than half of the actual running expenses. Many families struggle to raise even this modest amount, and are supported by stipends raised primarily during Ramadan. The contribution of the Lebanese state stands at $80 annually per child -- with payments for four years in arrears.

"We never intended to take the place of the state," says board member Mona Saad, a petite, soft spoken woman in her late fifties, "but it appears that human development is really not a priority in politics." Public schools do exist in Saida, as in the rest of the country, and while status-conscious Beirutis mostly turn their nose up at the public system, some of them actually do offer a reasonable standard. The problem is that there are never enough places, at least at those schools known for quality, or rather, that access depends on the favors of influential politicians with power of patronage -- favors that amount to an open bill, to be footed on election day. In Saida, this state of affairs has been translated into the local notion that whoever wishes to get into the public system needs to pay a visit to "The Lady" -- Bahiya Hariri, sister of the late Prime Minister, MP for Saida since 1996 and Minister of Education since 2005.

United Nations peacekeepers collect munitions and bomblets from Israeli cluster bombs. The Israelis dropped massive numbers of such munitions in the last several days of the war, littering southern Lebanon. Civilians, including children, have been killed and maimed by these weapons. Such use constitutes war crimes. Israel, of course, predictably denied wrongdoing.

At the mention of political interference in the provision of public education, Mona Saad struggles to maintain her composure, and raises her voice: "There may even be enough places, but people have completely internalized this logic, and school directors will simply not give a place to a child before they get a call from this or that political leader. These are services paid for with taxpayer money -- they should be accessible to everybody, but those political leaders have simply hijacked them."

Alternatively, low-cost quality education is available from networks of "charitable" institutions present all over the country, often with an open or implicit politico-sectarian agenda. Escaping such dependencies requires, in Saida as anywhere in Lebanon, the deep pockets necessary to pay for commercial private education, starting at some $4,000 annually per child -- a tall order even for many middle class families.

Mona Saad herself hails from a family with a long political tradition. She is the daughter of a Sidonian labor organizer turned parliamentarian. After his assassination on the eve of the civil war his sons continued the tradition, and have represented Saida as MPs for the past 17 years. However, this time around, the odds have been turning against them. With the adoption of small electoral districts agreed upon in Doha, the electorate of Saida is now nearly 80% Sunni, prompting the Hariri family to break with the long tradition of sharing the two seats representing the city, and bringing them even closer to achieving a total monopoly over political representation of the Sunni community in Lebanon. To that end, they fielded none other than Prime Minister Fuad Siniora himself, whose political future may be up in the air if he loses the tight race against his still popular Nasserite opponent for the second slot in the city (first place is expected to go, by a large margin, to Bahiya Hariri). As of now, opinion polls suggest that the gamble may pay off, with Saad tailing Siniora by some one thousand votes. Mona Saad, who has been campaigning house to house for her brother over the past weeks, remains unflinched: "People are afraid to tell strangers and pollsters what they think. They receive monthly payments and food supplies from the Hariris, their kids are in their schools, many work for one of their companies. They are afraid to lose their job when it becomes known they vote for us, and we can't get them a new one."

The southern coastal city of Sidon

Much of this economy of dependency and loyalty relies on antiquated electoral procedures that allow politicians to undermine the secrecy of the vote. Lebanese citizens do not vote by ticking a box on a standardized and official ballot sheet, but by writing down names of their preferred candidates (as many names as there are seats in a district). Doreen Khoury, a 30 year old civil society activist, has spent the last ten years of her life fighting for a better electoral system -- so far largely in vain. She has had many opportunities to observe the sophisticated ruses deployed by Lebanese politicians and their mobilization machines:

"What happens is that the campaign machines themselves print a list of candidates that they want you to put in the ballot box, and distribute it. That sounds harmless, but it’s the key device to track votes. Most people vote in villages, where you have rarely more than 2,000 voters, who are further subdivided by sect and by family register numbers. So if in a given voting room you have ten major families, they will distribute ten different versions of the same list to those families -- different in font, name order, etc. During vote count, the election monitors of the various candidates inspect any single ballot paper, and they track exactly how many copies of what version ended up in the box. And after the elections, they may come to the head of that family and tell him: hey -- we promised you to pay the tuition for your nephew, we settled your cousin's hospital bill -- why didn't you guys vote for us?"

Joint Hizbullah-AMAL election mural

Equally important, from the perspective of the political elite, is to assure that voters do not alter the lists they were given, as the leverage of the individual politician in the horse-trading that dominates the formation of electoral alliances -- exchanging support in one district for votes in another -- mostly depends on his[12] ability to compel supporters to vote blindly for the line-up presented to them. Recalls Khoury:

"In 2005, in one voting room they had removed the table, and shortened the curtain that supposedly protects the secrecy of the vote. And when voting started I realized why: people who wanted to change the list, or write their own list, had to lift their knee so that they could rest the paper on their leg to write. The monitors would peek under the curtain, and every time somebody raised a knee, they would mark the name."

Dissipating Democratic Aspirations

One of the promises of the new government installed after the 2005 "Cedar Revolution" was to pass a new electoral law that would curb such clientelist practices, which during the 15-plus years of Syrian occupation had been used to provide democratic legitimacy to even the most loathsome quislings of the Pax Syriana. A draft law was developed and promoted with unprecedented civil society participation and international support,[13] only to be shelved indefinitely in the aftermath of the 2006 war and subsequent constitutional crisis.

Ultimately, entrenched clientelism, sectarian fear, an unfavorable international environment and a majoritarian electoral formula, which tends to privilege traditional politicians, all conspired against the change that most of those activists who took to the streets in 2005 desired.

Equally important in perpetuating the status quo is a group of political actors unprepared to imagine a different order of things. Says Oussama Safa of LCPS:

"We keep focusing on the political system, and we tend to forget that in all successful changes around the globe, from South Africa to Poland, you always had a visionary, courageous leadership that emerged and led the nation. In Lebanon, we had none. And so when we have our short moments of glory, such as those demonstrations in 2005, when people go into the streets and don't find leadership, they won't just stay there. They go home."

With a political system based on consensus, there will be no escape from the quagmire of the past two years without compromise. Whichever camp wins the majority on Sunday will be less crucial in determining Lebanon’s future than the political bargaining that follows. If the Lebanese government is to work after the elections, the political elite will have show bold leadership and compromise where they failed to before.


[1] For a discussion of the Aoun movement see Heiko Wimmen, “Rallying around the Renegade”, Middle East Report Online, 27/08/2007;

[2] The government side denied the existence of these militias and instead spoke of “citizens who defended their houses”. See Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei, “Lebanon's Sunni bloc built militia, officials say”, Los Angeles Times, 05/12/08;,0,6458359.story.

[3] For a detailed discussion of the May 2008 events, see Heiko Wimmen, Lebanon Pulls back from the Abyss, Heinrich Böll Foundation – Middle East Office, 05/30/2008;

[4] The – necessarily generalizing – observations presented in the following three paragraphs are partly based on a focus group study conducted with some 150 young Lebanese (age group 18-25) in late 2008 and early 2009 in cooperation between the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), the Heinrich Böll Foundation (hbf) and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA). The findings match to a large extent with quantitative surveys conducted in recent years; cf. for example Theodor Hanf, (2007) E pluribus unum? Lebanese opinions and Attitudes on Coexistence. Byblos: UNESCO International Centre for Human Sciences,

[5] A recent article in the German magazine "Der Spiegel" ostensibly based on evidence "leaked" from the international court investigating the crime suggests a direct involvement of Hizballah, an accusation that, if proved substantial, would help to complete this maneuver. However, the veracity of the original information remains unascertained, and the article displays poor understanding of Lebanese politics in the analysis of the potential motives for such an involvement, while the timing of the publication (two weeks before the Lebanese elections, and during a period when American foreign policy seems intend on rehabilitating Syria in order to lure it away from its alliance with Iran) raises suspicion of ulterior motives. See Sami Moubayed, "Finger-pointing riles Hezbollah", Asia Times Online, May 27, 2009;

[6] The law provides for a first-past-the-post majority system differentiated by sect. As in most majority systems, gerrymandering has the potential to severely distort the popular vote, and has been a temptation for sitting presidents and governments ever since the foundation of Lebanon, as the partition of electoral districts often settles the race for a large number of seats before campaigning even begins. During the Doha conference, most of the actual mediation effort was in fact devoted to discussing the details of the future electoral law, and in particular the partition of Beirut. The outcome, with its tendency to slightly favor the opposition, likewise reflected the balance of power on the ground in the wake of Hizballah's "occupation" of West Beirut.

[7] Ali Al-Amine, “Hizbollah prepares for period after June 8”, Al Balad Newspaper, 03/30/2009; (Arabic). The recent restoration of official contacts with the party's political wing by the British government may also be part of that process.

[8] NPR/AP, " Biden's Lebanon Trip Sparks Charge of Interference", 05/22/2009;

[9] According to the constitution, a government is considered resigned when more than one third of cabinet ministers resign. By obtaining 11 out of 30 ministers in the National Unity Government formed after the Doha accord, the opposition was thus in the position to bring down the government at any moment by means of collective resignation, and could thus veto any legislation it disliked.

[10] Recent moves by Walid Jumblat have been widely interpreted in this sense. Likewise, speculations about a "centrist" block loyal to the President emerging from "independent" MPs on both sides of the aisle have been floated. There seems to be little substance to most of these speculations, many of which are clearly based on narrow electoral calculations, or plain wishful thinking.

[11] Between 1,500 and 2,500 US-Dollars for a family of two breadwinners in qualified salaried employment, and around $500 or less for families depending on a single income from unskilled occupation. Double-income households typically have to rely on live-in helpers for household labor and child minding, reducing disposable income by some $300 per month.

[12] Only very rarely hers – Lebanese women participate in politics almost exclusively as placeholders for assassinated or otherwise impeded fathers, brothers and husbands, and often only until a male heir to the position has reached an appropriate age. However, some do manage to acquire a political standing of their own, such as the sister of the late Rafiq Hariri, Bahiya, or the widow of the assassinated president of the republic René Moawad, Nayla.

[13] According to observations by activists in these campaigns, which are confirmed in private by European diplomats, much of the Western support for the electoral reform was based on the rather doubtful premise that better electoral standards and hence lesser opportunities for voter intimidation would weaken support for "radical" forces such as Hizballah, and support "moderates" such as the Future movement.

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