On May 15, Lebanon held its first election since mass protests swept the country in October 2019. Triggered by economic crisis and profound frustration with an inept, detached ruling establishment, the protest movement sparked hope that real change to the country’s anachronistic, corrupt political system was in the offing. Fast forward nearly three years, and such promise seems to have been extinguished by the calamitous August 2020 Beirut port explosion, traditional party supporters’ efforts to stifle new opposition movements, and an historic economic collapse.

Protesters gather in front of the Mohammad al Amin mosque in downtown Beirut, Oct. 20, 2019. Lebanon’s 2019 protests, the largest since its independence, moved from fury over the economy and corruption to demands for a new political system. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)
Protesters gather in front of the Mohammad al Amin mosque in downtown Beirut, Oct. 20, 2019. Lebanon’s 2019 protests, the largest since its independence, moved from fury over the economy and corruption to demands for a new political system. (Diego Ibarra

The latter was especially problematic for the prospects of political change: the currency’s free-fall, collapse of the banking sector and shuttering of businesses ensured that many citizens would have to turn to the traditional ruling establishment and their clientelist and patronage networks for the provision of needs, ensuring the political establishment’s survival. 

Election results show that October 2019 protests groups — the “change opposition” — picked up 13 seats in the 128-seat parliament, an outcome unfathomable only one year ago, breathing new life into the prospect of political reform. Their victory and the promise of reform is further buttressed by independents who defected from the political establishment winning 16 seats. While some independents are perceived to be unsavory and self-interested, others are respected and lean toward being natural allies for the change opposition.  

These gains may seem miniscule considering that traditional parties still retained a majority of seats, winning 99 in all, nominally divided between two rival camps. These parties will continue to be dominant political actors inside and outside of parliament, particularly Hezbollah. Yet the breakthrough of change opposition groups into the legislature is a massive achievement, one that bodes well for Lebanon’s political development and a political reform process that started in 2015. 

Countering Criticism of Change Opposition Performance

Many will focus on the fact that change opposition groups did not make major inroads in parliament and consider anything short of comprehensive change a sign of failure. If 30 years of political dysfunction, incompetent governance and economic calamites could not induce sweeping change in parliament, then, the argument goes, Lebanon is doomed to failed-state status. This is an exceedingly short-sighted view that fails to acknowledge the difficulties in uprooting a political system entrenched in, and perpetuated by, 150 years of history. Modern Lebanon is built on a governance model in which sectarian leaders act as the link between communities and the state, with political elites competing over state resources to provide services and benefits to a narrow sectarian support base. This model was institutionalized further by the Taif Agreement, which, in ending the 1975-1990 civil war, allowed for a sect-based, corrupt patronage systems to take hold of the state. 

This system remains resilient precisely because communities rely on the largess of their parties and political leaders — not the state — for needs: whether it’s medicine, securing a hospital bed for a family member, or even a perfunctory position in a government ministry. These provisions, of course, come with the understanding that during elections or political crises, supporters will rally to aid of the traditional leader and party. Failure to do so can come with social costs, such as failure to get a construction permit from the municipal councils long captured by traditional parties. Though some economic and social changes over the last 10 years have chipped away at this arrangement — broadening the political space and allowing new voices to emerge — a majority of the population still relies on this system and are hesitant to discard it absent a viable alternative. 

Viewed against this history, a breakthrough bloc of candidates not entering parliament to steer state resources to their supporters or pass laws to enrich their own pocketbooks and expand their party’s patronage network is a massive break from the past. Indeed, change opposition groups have campaigned to stop such practices and transform the perception of a parliamentarian’s responsibilities.  Change candidates have placed oversight, accountability and transparency at the core of their work, a message which has clearly resonated among the nearly 10 percent of the electorate who cast their ballot for them.

Helping them in this endeavor at reform are two key matters. One is a parliamentary procedure that requires a minimum of 10 parliamentarians to appeal the passing of legislation, meaning traditional parties will no longer have a clear path to passing laws that merely reinforce their privileged position. The other relates to coalition building within parliament. The May 15 polls have also brought into parliament several independent figures, many of whom defected from traditional parties and were running on independent lists not associated with the change opposition. While there is a segment of opposition supporters who scoff at these figures for their previous association with the establishment, the presence of some will likely give the change opposition a few key legislative allies.

A second criticism relates to the change opposition groups themselves and their inability to unify ahead of the vote or present a coherent alternative to the traditional establishment. Indeed, in all the districts contested by change opposition groups, only South III district had a unified list. This meant that like-minded opposition groups competed among themselves, independents and the traditional parties for votes, which in theory would work to the advantage the latter. Yet a cursory review of election results shows that the splitting of votes among opposition groups — and between these groups and anti-establishment independents — only seems to have hurt change groups in Mount Lebanon II district, where an opposition change candidate lost by only 88 votes, and in Mount Lebanon III, where the existence of two opposition lists helped traditional parties pick up all the district seats. 

Of course, a united change opposition — or even one that partnered closely with anti-establishment independents — could have increased the reformist position during the campaign: it might have helped mobilize undecided voters who did not vote (voter turnout was 49%, on par with the 2018 elections)  or casted blank, protest ballots (19,000 total). Expectations on the ability of still nascent opposition groups to fully unite were too high. The change opposition is comprised of at least 15 groups with varying platforms and policy positions. Though they are united in their objective to reform the political system and have similar stances on social matters, they differ on several political and economic issues. This includes disagreements on how to tackle Lebanon’s worsening economic crisis, how to expand the social safety net, and when and how to address the issue of Hezbollah’s arms. As such, it was never realistic that unified lists would appear in every or most electoral districts. 

In spite of their differences, these groups did make headway in presenting a more unified front in the election, with only two main groups — Qadreen and Madiniti — deciding to go at it alone in most of the districts they contested (incidentally, neither of these groups were able to reach parliament). Indeed, zooming in on where change opposition took seats shows that an inability to fully unify did not stymie wins in a cross-section of society, picking up seats in Christian, Sunni, Druze and Shia majority districts and knocking off candidates whose families have long held political office, highlighting their broad-based appeal. 

A bigger an impediment to entering parliament for these groups was the electoral system. The May 15 polls were Lebanon’s second election using proportional representation (PR); up until 2018, elections were rooted in majoritarian, winter take-all-systems. Long championed by civil society as a way that would allow new entities into parliament, the shift toward PR ostensibly looked like a move toward a more inclusive system. In reality, the system devised by the old guard contains features that dilute the benefits of PR and skew the outcomes in favor of the traditional ruling class. These include the addition of a preferential vote, seen as helping secure the election of traditional leaders; the inequitable use of district magnitude, meaning the threshold needed to win a seat varies considerably from district to district; the use of electoral boundaries that match the constituencies of traditional parties; and the continued stipulation that voters cast ballots in their ancestral villages, an electoral tradition that precludes the emergence of a strong concentration of opposition constituencies. 

Combined with weak campaign financing restrictions, the absence of an independent electoral administration, and traditional parties’ patronage and clientelist networks, it is remarkable that change opposition groups were able to breakthrough a system so stacked against them. 

What Comes Next?

First up will be the May 22 convening of parliament to elect a new parliamentary speaker. The vote is likely to be contentious as the change opposition and some traditional parties have said they won’t support octogenarian Nabih Berri, who has presided over the chamber since 1992 and is backed by an array of allies, including Hezbollah. The vote will then be followed by government formation, an historically fraught, drawn out process. Neither of these issues are likely to pass smoothly and will be further complicated by the fact that the president’s term expires at the end of October. (The president is elected by parliament needing two-thirds of votes.) The early parliamentary sessions will also be a time for change opposition candidates to rally together and set a consensus agenda in order to present a united front in parliament as traditional parties will be keeping an eye on divisions to exploit. 

Despite the new entrants to parliament, traditional parties will continue to be the main players dictating the terms of these outcomes. As such, these aspects of parliamentary procedure — not to mention the looming task of legislating the country out of its steep economic imbroglio — will be mired in discord, political rivalries, delays, informal projections of power (e.g., the mobilization of supporters of traditional sectarian leaders to the streets) and an unwillingness to compromise. Hence, post-election political dynamics are unlikely to differ from pre-poll politics. Berri is the leading candidate to once again be speaker of parliament. Cabinet formation is likely to be an interminable process. Traditional parties, especially rival Christian ones, will determine the presidency. And the quick passing of an economic recovery plan and implementation of key reforms to unlock IMF funding are improbable. 

Yet there will be changes around the margins. Berri will win reelection with less votes than before, cabinet portfolios will go to new opposition groups, and change opposition MPs will be courted for votes in the presidential election, meaning compromises in favor of change opposition priorities will be had. 

Then there is the issue of Hezbollah and its arms. The party and its allies lost their parliamentary majority (it won 61 seats in 2022, down from 71 in 2018), an outcome that will inevitably increase calls for Hezbollah’s disarmament, and ratchet-up of tensions between pro- and anti-Hezbollah groups. Renewed calls for a national dialogue to discuss the issue as well as the worsening economic crisis, rejected by several political groups last year, might have more supporters this time around. Irrespective, Lebanon will still be pulled between the West and the Gulf countries, on one side, and Iran and its regional allies, on the other. 

These repeated dynamics and marginal gains will undoubtedly once again dampen hopes among many that genuine change can occur. Yet this should not discourage reformists and their supporters for two main reasons. First, non-establishment voices will for the first time be able directly able to shape these and other political and policy outcomes. While their potential impact on all these issues will be eclipsed by stronger, more entrenched traditional parties, this should not diminish the fact that new groups have a seat at the negotiation table where small, important victories can and will be won. 

Second, the election of 13 change opposition candidates needs to be viewed as just the next step on the path toward political reform. The beginning of this path can be traced to the 2015 garbage crisis, which mobilized citizens onto Beirut’s streets in what came to be known as the YouStink movement. Here, citizens not only called for a sustainable solution to the piles of trash scattering the city and country but they also demanded accountability and an end to systemic corruption. Since then, Lebanon witnessed Beirut Madiniti (Beirut is My City), a newly formed opposition group championing reform and accountability, pick-up 35 percent of votes against a united list of rival traditional parties in Beirut’s 2016 municipal election; the emergence of reform-minded opposition groups, some of which contested the 2018 elections, with one candidate breaking through to parliament; and the rise of new media and civic organizations challenging the status quo and placing reform of the system at the center of their work.

The gains made on May 15 are culmination of all these developments, and usher in yet another milestone in the path to reform, one that shows elections to no longer be a mechanism to simply redistribute state resources among sectarian elites. All that has transpired since 2015 highlights that fundamental reform efforts are neither linear nor effortlessly reached. Setbacks will occur but, as the country’s recent history demonstrates, the march toward a more inclusive, responsive and accountable political system will continue to make gains, however gradual or inconsequential they may initially appear. This lesson should be on the minds of both reformist supporters and their detractors as this next parliamentary phase in the path toward political reform commences. 

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