Decisive elections in Lebanon – OpEd
Lebanon is preparing to go to the polls on May 15. Many observers believe that this parliamentary election promises to be one of the most significant in the modern history of the country (“crucial” and “decisive” are among the terms used). Three vital questions hang over the outcome.
First, Lebanon’s ailing economy depends on the implementation of sweeping reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) before its essential financial package is put in place. Nothing can be done until the new government is in place. Second, President Michel Aoun’s mandate is over and the new parliament will have the task of electing and confirming his successor in office. Third, and perhaps most critical of all, this election campaign produced a significant weight of anti-Hezbollah political sentiment among a number of disparate political groups. With a modicum of leadership, they could be brought together to curtail the nefarious influence of the Iran-backed extremist group once and for all.
The elections come as the Lebanese currency has lost more than 90% of its value over the past two years, plunging more than half of Lebanon’s 6 million people into poverty. The economic crisis was aggravated by the massive explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, when much of the capital was destroyed, more than 200 people killed, thousands injured, 300,000 people made homeless and billions of dollars in material damage was caused. . Responsibility has not yet been determined, as powerful figures linked to Hezbollah are doing their best to thwart the public investigation.
The World Bank has described Lebanon’s financial and economic crisis as one of the worst in the world for 150 years. The IMF demands, among other measures, that the Lebanese government approve a restructuring of the banking system that takes into account the significant losses of the sector, while protecting small depositors and limiting their recourse to public resources. Lebanon’s political and financial elite have been at odds for two years over such a plan, including over how to apportion some $70 billion in losses between banks, the state and depositors. Lebanon’s banking sector argues that the government and central bank should bear the lion’s share of the losses. Goldman Sachs said the most difficult reform would be the restructuring of local banks, “The allocation of losses between government, bank shareholders and depositors is…unlikely to be resolved easily.” It will still have to be resolved after the elections, if Lebanon wants to be helped by the IMF to regain some financial stability.
Since returning to Lebanon in 2005 from France, where he lived in exile for 14 years, President Michel Aoun, aided by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, both allies of Hezbollah, has been a destabilizing force in Lebanese politics. In 2016, Hezbollah’s support for Aoun’s presidential candidacy was the main factor leading to his election.
Once in office, Aoun allowed, if not positively encouraged, Bassil to engage in lucrative patronage activities. Furthermore, the president and his son-in-law are trying to ensure that Bassil succeeds Aoun in power. These aspirations were hit hard in November 2020 when the United States sanctioned Bassil, accusing him of being at the forefront of corruption. Nevertheless, Bassil is trying to lead his party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), to victory in the legislative elections, and no doubt hopes to seize the presidency if he succeeds. At least he is a Maronite Christian, an essential prerequisite for holding this office.
Modern Lebanon, founded in 1944, was established on the basis of an agreed “National Pact”. Political power is allocated according to a religious or “confessional” system, with seats in parliament split 50-50 between Muslims and Christians. The three most important positions in the state are allocated in such a way that the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.
Theoretically, no system could seem more designed to satisfy all parties in a multi-faith society. The theory, however, had to bend to practical reality. Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict.
Hezbollah’s many opponents, both within Christian and Muslim parties, accuse the Iran-backed organization of running a mini-state in Lebanon, disregarding the nation’s sovereignty. They are treating these elections as an opportunity to end what they see as its dominance over the country’s political decision-making and Iran’s occupation of Lebanon through its powerful proxy.
As a result, two opposing camps are vying for a majority in the next parliament: the anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces party and its allies, determined to challenge Hezbollah’s influence and dominance over the country’s administration; and Hezbollah and its supporters, who will fight to retain the majority they currently hold in parliament, and counter efforts to normalize relations with Israel.
Earlier this year, Fares Souaid, a vocal critic of Hezbollah, created what he called “a national council to end the Iranian occupation” of Lebanon. The council includes Muslim and Christian politicians, academics and civil society figures opposed to Hezbollah’s influence.
Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces party, which has the second largest Christian bloc in parliament and is a sworn enemy of Hezbollah, is campaigning with the absolute aim of wresting the country’s sovereignty from the clutches of Hezbollah. Geagea hopes to overturn the majority won in the last elections by the pro-Hezbollah group, which includes the Free Patriotic Movement founded by Aoun, and the Amal Movement led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Geagea argues that a solution to the economic crisis begins with defeating Hezbollah, which he blames – with some reason – for Lebanon’s economic collapse.
This parliamentary election offers the Lebanese people a real chance to shed the dead weight of the past, to regain their sovereignty under a new president and to implement the reforms that will allow the IMF to sign a financial package intended to revitalize the economy of the country. . Everything depends on them.