Another Election in the Middle East – Why It Matters in Lebanon

 Lebanon is bracing for its first parliamentary election since 2009, having extended its term twice since the in the absence of the security and consensus needed to proceed. While no one expects a shake-up in the results based on a new electoral law that may enable newcomers to win several seats, there are strong currents building that may alter future “election results as usual” predictions.

Currently, the Amal-Hezbollah-Free Patriotic Movement is considered the front-runner to secure the largest number of seats, not a majority, but more than enough to have its veto over any Parliamentary actions. But there are cracks in that alliance as well as the new electoral format does not assure them of all of the seats in districts in which they may have a majority of the population. In some districts, the outcomes will depend on real contests among candidates appealing to voters directly rather than through pre-ordained party lists.

Other variables that will influence the results will be the level of voter enthusiasm for Hezbollah’s continued foreign adventures on behalf of Iran, pressures to include more women candidates, participation by Lebanon’s millennial and independents, and pressure from regional actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

As an article in Lawfareblog recently pointed out, “It is not yet clear how much or how little the new law will affect Lebanon’s elections—a robust debate is already underway. Neither is it clear how the foreign powers aligned with various Lebanese political actors will react to significant shifts in Beirut.  What is clear is that the new electoral law—which many Lebanese welcomed enthusiastically—might disrupt almost 9 years of status quo.”

The specter of a war with Israel, as a result of overreach by Hezbollah or Israel also plays on the minds of voters. From Hezbollah’s continued role as a surrogate for Iran in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere to flare-ups due to miscalculations or probing of Israel’s defenses by Iranian-backed forces along the Syria-Israel border, the majority of Lebanese remember all too well the price they paid for Hezbollah’s adventurism in 2006.

Let the Women Speak

Lebanon is one of the few Arab countries that has not made a concerted effort to ensure greater participation of women in Parliament through mandatory allocations of seats or requiring parties to field women candidates.

As Annaharnet wrote recently, “Despite a comparatively free press, different religious groups, and women in high-ranking positions in the corporate world and the job market, Lebanon ranks shockingly low when it comes to female representation in politics, and politicians have been unsuccessful in acting on a movement to establish a quota for women in parliament.”

When Lebanon’s new government was announced in December 2016, it was criticized for its lack of women members. Even the Minister of State for Women’s Affairs is a man, Jean Oghassabian, such is the reality of balancing the sectarian membership of the government. Yet the Minister has been active in moving forward with promoting the participation of women at all levels of government. “Keeping women from public life is not only a loss for women. It is a loss for the parliament,” he said. In cooperation with the UN and EU, his ministry is working to bring more women into the election process.

On the other end of the spectrum is Rima Fakhry, a senior member of the political bureau of Hezbollah, who told AP in an interview that “the women’s movement considers that women should reach decision-making positions; for them, it is in parliament. We differ with those movements. Hezbollah doesn’t see the role of a lawmaker suitable for a woman in Lebanon. For us, a woman is a woman. She must work to fulfill the main goals she exists for. These are not different from those of men. But the difference lies in the details. She has a home. She is a mother and must bring up future generations. This takes a lot of the woman’s time.”

Hearing from the Outliers

Among various independent groups and coalitions that are maneuvering to join the election process are those who believe that transparency, an end of nepotism, and a greater emphasis on rule of law, providing services such as waste management, clean water, quality education, and respect for human rights are essential. Politics as usual in Lebanon avoids talking about issues except in very general terms. The lack of political platforms from legacy candidates representing the existing power structure may create vulnerabilities in some districts.

As one analyst remarked, “Elections in Lebanon are not based on a clear scientific, ideological, and political track, as much as being founded on the absence of real awareness, which justifies why several candidates disregard presenting their electoral programs and plans, based on which they will be later held accountable.”

Another electoral expert Abdo Saad asserted that “No candidate or political party has ever presented a political program while running for elections in Lebanon because voters do not hold those candidates accountable for their actions, but rather base their judgments on political and religious dependence.”

As with the US electoral map where literally less than 10% of seats not held by incumbents are real contests, the majority of seats will go to party surrogates whose victories will result from affiliations rather than policies. This has not dimmed the enthusiasm of those activists who believe that time in on their side as Lebanon is caught in regional cross-winds that make its role as a multicultural, multi-sectarian, independent, and tolerant country even more critical.

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