Lebanese elections indicate anti-Hezbollah trends and show strengths and weaknesses of new election law
by George Khalaf
The media is calling the recent Lebanese elections a victory for Hezbollah. But the takeaways from Lebanon’s first election in 9 years are far more complex and nuanced. The country’s newly passed election law overturned an old system that stifled the voices of political and religious minorities in favor of a more representative system. The results revealed trends not favorable to Hezbollah. And while the new law was a step in the right direction, it didn’t go far enough.
Until now, Lebanese election law awarded full parliamentary representation to parties that won a simple majority in their district. This system generated ever-changing alliances between majority and minority groups who vacillated between opposing one another and joining forces to secure election victories. Prior to 2018, Hezbollah and their allies held 37 of 128 seats in parliament with comfortable majorities in a fifth of the districts. Lebanese Christians in districts where no Christian candidate could secure a majority often allied with Muslims on common ground issues like opposition to Hezbollah. But even regarding Hezbollah, Christians could be divided. Parties like the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), led by President Aoun’s son-in-law, have a history of allegiance to Hezbollah. The Lebanese Forces have long been the only significant party to remain consistent in their opposition. But prior to this election, they held only 8 seats.
It was against this backdrop – and after almost 5 years of disagreement and delays – that the 2018 elections were held. Under the new law, open seats in a district are now awarded proportionally rather than on a winner-take-all basis. When the results were made public, the media quickly reported a win for Hezbollah. Some results initially appeared positive for the group. Hezbollah and their ally, the AMAL Movement, gained a combined total of 3 seats, and the FPM picked up a seat. Also, the Sunni Future Movement, staunch opponents of Hezbollah, lost almost a third of their seats, falling from 26 to 21.
But that wasn’t the whole story. While the media reported a Hezbollah victory, the group’s most significant political enemy - the Lebanese Forces - celebrated almost doubling their seats.
Also, the Sunni Future Movement’s loss was not necessarily Hezbollah’s gain. While it was partially due to the weakness of Sunni leader Saad Hariri, it was also the result of losing the votes of Christians who had previously allied with them but now voted for Christian candidates. Although voter turnout was down overall from 54% in 2009 to 49%, Christians in many regions were reengaging, finally sensing they had a voice. In Lebanon’s fourth largest district, Baalbak-Hermel, where Hezbollah has 74% of the votes and Christians had not had a representative in over 30 years, turnout rose from a lackluster 49.3% in 2009 to an astonishing 58.74%. The increased turnout comprised Christians as well as Hezbollah supporters motivated to oppose the rising voice of Christian voters. The gains for the Lebanese Forces combined with reinvigorated Christian engagement indicate a growing and effective current of opposition to Hezbollah among Lebanese voters – and not just Christians. Even some Muslims are souring to Hezbollah and finding common ground with Christians in their opposition.
While the changes paved the way for a more representative outcome and victories by anti-Hezbollah candidates, they didn’t go nearly far enough – and introduced new problems. First, many voters were confused by the changes, contributing to the depressed turnout. For those who did vote, there were frequent mistakes resulting in many votes being thrown out. But of even greater concern were candidates who lost to those with fewer votes simply because of religious and area-based representation. In one instance, a candidate secured a seat with 259 total votes and another with only 77. In some areas, Christians still chose not to vote, believing their votes would be wasted. In the Sour-Zahrani district, only 23% of Christians voted, down from 25% in 2009.
Chart below: Overall turnout movement from 2009 to 2018 compared with turnout movement in Baalbek-Hermel (a district with re-invigorated Christian turnout) and Sour-Zahrani (a district with low Christian turnout).
After decades of imbalanced representation, the current law is a definite improvement. But more is needed. When parliament convenes in May, they must continue moving toward better representation by taking a critical look at the obstacles still present in the new law. The goal must be election law that more accurately represents the Lebanese populace and produces outcomes reflective of the will of the voters. If this is accomplished and the sentiment among Lebanese voters continues to turn against Hezbollah, 2018 is only a taste of the change that is coming.
George Khalaf was born in Beirut, Lebanon and remains engaged in Lebanese political affairs while also serving as president of the Phoenix-based data analytics and survey research firm, Data Orbital.
To receive regular blog updates, subscribe here.