Depending on the source, and the time of day, prognostications about Lebanon’s parliamentary elections provide even more confirmation that the results will either be a landslide for good or for evil or somewhere in between. We are assured, simultaneously, that the new electoral law eases the way for new entrants into the system and that there is little chance for unaligned candidates to break into the closed loop of Parliamentary districts.
Well, what is going on and why is it important if there is so much conviction and uncertainty at the same time? In a cogent article penned by Hady Amr, who has served in the US Foreign Service and knows Lebanon better than most, the fact that the election will be held after so many delays is in itself an important achievement. After mentioning the positive and not-great conditions surrounding the elections, he notes that “And compared to an Arab world filled with either war, sham elections, or undemocratic regimes, things could clearly be much worse.”
Well one area in which there is a bit of sunshine is the number of women who have entered the contests. Although the number of female candidates from the original list has declined by some 22%, there are still a record number of 86 female candidates competing for Lebanon’s 128 legislative seats in a country where women make up only three percent of the current parliament. Lebanon ranked 137 out of 144 countries on the Global Gender Gap Report 2017, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), and 142 when it comes to political empowerment, as reported in an article in Al-Jazeera. A long way to go for sure and it is hoped that more women in parliament will lead to ground-breaking legislation and role models that start to improve Lebanon’s ranking through empowering more women and girls to enter the public political space.
But the old guard is not going softly to their cabanas on Zaitunya Bay. More than a dozen candidates are directly related to current power brokers and are heavily favored in their districts. In addition, the existing distribution of seats divided equally between Christians and Muslims further excludes new entrants (National Democratic Institute graph http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/LEBANON-ELECTION/010062EN4C9/LEBANON-PARLIAMENT.jpg) demonstrates the overall distribution). As in other countries, access to media is important and is priced out of the range of smaller parties, independents, and those who don’t own or have major influence with existing outlets; so social media is important in reaching out to voters.
The Lebanese Center for Political Studies (LCPS) published a very useful article describing how power brokers and parties work to influence voters and make sure they participate correctly in the election. The system relies of building strong ties with influencers in local communities and ensuring that services target those who can best mobilize votes for particular candidates.
Given that there are a number of competitive races and the heightened interest in the positions of the candidates on domestic issues, party platforms have appeared addressing local concerns. Among those mentioned most often are quality health care, access to a functioning power system, educational reform, waste management, the environment, infrastructure improvements, transparency in government contracting, reducing corruption, and enhanced human rights protections. Clearly on the table but largely unspoken are how to deal with the Syrian refugees, assistance to host communities, eliminating bias in government programs and the army and security services, and internal power balances among Sunnis and Christians.
The most critical issue, if and when Hezbollah will draw Lebanon into a war with Israel, is only mentioned loudly by Hezbollah and its allies, continuing to claim that they represent Lebanon’s best security guarantee. While some have mentioned that Hezbollah will increase its seats in parliament at the expense of Sunni representation, there is a bit of hopefulness that their bloc will not attain the two-thirds needed to have a veto-proof majority in parliament, despite the reality that it only takes one-third plus one to ensure gridlock, as Hezbollah has demonstrated skillfully in the past.
So while Lebanon is on the edge of a ground-breaking election, it continues to teeter on the brink of an unwanted war that the great majority Lebanese wants to avoid. The policy of dissociation, staying out of the affairs of others in the region, will be the first item on the table for the new parliament given the rapid consolidation of Assad’s power in Syria, bringing even more pressure on Lebanon on multiple fronts. Managing this complex agenda will take all of the skills of the executive and legislative leadership in the country.