Lebanon election results unlikely to yield much-needed reforms

Israel’s education minister responds to poll outcome by saying ‘Hizbullah = Lebanon’

Supporters of Lebanon’s Hizbullah and Amal celebrate results in Marjayoun: some fear, particularly in south Lebanon, that Israel may carry out a new campaign to eliminate Hizbullah. Photography: Aziz Taher

Supporters of Lebanon’s Hizbullah and Amal celebrate results in Marjayoun: some fear, particularly in south Lebanon, that Israel may carry out a new campaign to eliminate Hizbullah. Photography: Aziz Taher

 

Less than half of Lebanon’s 3.6 million registered voters turned out on Sunday in the country’s first parliamentary election in nine turbulent years. During this time, parliament was for two years unable to elect a president or agree on an election law. War gripped neighbouring Syria, Lebanon’s role as a bridge between the Arab world and Europe eroded, long-standing regional rivalries flared between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a new cold war developed between Russia and the West.

While this election for 128 seats in Lebanon’s chamber of deputies returned politicians belonging to reigning political dynasties, the introduction of proportional representation was positive because this model gave proper weight to the country’s main sectarian communities and provided for the entry into parliament of some independents. The introduction of this model on a national basis would have been revolutionary and could have involved democratic regime change, an outcome that would terrify the country’s political, commercial, and sectarian establishment as well as regional and global backers.

Within the 77 lists competing, candidates were from Lebanon’s main sectarian communities, preserving the half-Christian-half-Muslim composition of parliament. However, since no bloc secured a stable majority, Lebanese consulted by The Irish Times argued urgent reforms cannot be contemplated or rampant corruption tackled.

Hizbullah-Amal bloc

The chief winners were the Hizbullah-Amal bloc and allies, which included the two largest Christian-led coalitions.

The main loser was the Future movement. Although the number of its deputies dropped dramatically from 33 in 2009 to 21, its weakened leader, Saad Hariri, is expected to form a cabinet, extending years of political stasis. This means the Lebanese will continue to suffer shortages of electricity and water, inflation, low pay and high unemployment.

The first regional politician to react to the election result was Israel’s right-wing education minister Naftali Bennett who proclaimed, “Hizbullah = Lebanon”. He warned, “The state of Israel will not [now] differentiate between the sovereign state of Lebanon and Hizbullah and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action [against Israel] from within its territory.”

This is not a new policy but a line Israel has adopted since its establishment in 1948. There is concern, however, particularly in south Lebanon, that Israel could carry out a new military campaign with the aim of eliminating Hizbullah, which it and the US consider a “terrorist” organisation. While some European governments regard Hizbullah’s military wing a “terrorist” body, they recognise its political wing as a legitimate domestic political force.

Since war erupted in Syria, regional and international hostility toward Hizbullah has soared because its fighters have – along with Iranian, Iraqi and Russian contingents – supported President Bashar al-Assad, whose government the US and its allies have tried and failed to topple.

Iran deal

On the international plane, the election result in tiny Lebanon could affect the US decision, set to be taken on May 12th, over the fate of the 2015 agreement with Iran and six global powers – the US, France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany – under which Iran has dismantled its nuclear programmme in exchange for lifting sanctions. It is also significant that Donald Trump’s decision will coincide with Iraq’s parliamentary poll in which pro-Iranian militia groups and political parties are expected to win seats in the national assembly.

Israel and Sunni rulers in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Jordan contend Shia Iran’s influence stretches from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut. Having aligned the US with Saudi Arabia, Trump listens to these regional actors who are urging him to drop the nuclear deal.

An alarmist Lebanese analyst predicted that if Trump delivers on his pledge to “rip up” the deal, war could soon follow. The analyst feared such a conflict would embrace Lebanon as well as Syria, where, since 2011, Israel has conducted more than 100 raids against Hizbullah and half a dozen against positions held by Iranian advisers and paramilitaries. The Syrian government’s main ally, Russia, and Israel’s regional partners, the US and Saudi Arabia, could become directly involved rather than, as currently, indirectly through proxies. Lebanese from all communities agree this would spell disaster for their country and the entire region.