Lebanon’s elections will only re-legitimise the failed system

It is unlikely that Sunday’s parliamentary election will bring any structural change.

A truck drives past a billboard for the upcoming parliamentary election
A truck drives past a billboard for the upcoming parliamentary election, showing a helicopter putting out a fire at the scene of the 2020 Beirut port explosion with text in Arabic 'our silence will explode Beirut once again' (top), and 'Beirut needs [a] heart' (bottom), in Lebanon's capital Beirut on April 13, 2022 [File: Joseph Eid/AFP]

On May 15, Lebanese voters will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. Lebanon has changed significantly since the last general election in 2018. Indeed, after the emergence of the October 17 protest movement, an economic and financial collapse, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Beirut port explosion, and disruptions to energy and food security caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the country is now facing a brand new set of crippling challenges.

Today, the people of Lebanon are yearning for sweeping reforms that can get the country out of its chronic state of crisis. But rather than delivering this much-needed structural shift, the upcoming election will likely resuscitate a dysfunctional governance system.

The election – the first since the beginning of the October 17 anti-government protests in 2019 – will pit a new generation of candidates from the protest movement against the country’s traditional rulers.

There is some uncertainty about the prospects of traditional elites, especially due to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s January decision to suspend his political activities and instruct his party, Future Movement, not to participate in the election for the first time since 2007.

There is now a scramble for the Sunni vote, with Saudi Arabia – which ended a very public diplomatic row with Lebanon only recently – working hard to convince Hariri supporters not to boycott the election and to help it secure seats in the parliament for its anti-Hezbollah allies, such as the Lebanese Forces party led by Samir Geagea.

The future of the traditional ruling elite is less than certain. However, the election is set to be an even more difficult test for the protest movement’s candidates.

These new candidates are competitive in some districts, but they are generally lagging behind names supported by traditional powers. In the run-up to the election, these candidates failed to form a united front and respond to traditional powers’ well-funded campaigns supported by public institutions and the media. Some of these candidates still call for systemic reforms and keeping the spirit of the protest movement alive, but others have shifted their focus to countering Hezbollah or formed alliances with traditional parties that are against the current ruling class.

Candidates map

In Sunday’s election, a record 103 lists will compete for the 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament. The increase in the number of lists (there were only 77 in the 2018 election) is caused by the entry of October 17 movement candidates into the race as well as Hariri’s decision not to run, which paved the way for the emergence of several new Sunni candidates seeking to fill the vacuum.

The lists in this election can roughly be divided into three groups: those made up of Hezbollah and its allies, those consisting of traditional candidates running on an anti-Hezbollah platform, and those made up of October 17 movement candidates.

All three groups have their own weaknesses. Hezbollah candidates are seeking to secure a majority but they are mired in internal divisions. The candidates representing the traditional ruling class are hopeful that they can expand their power against Hezbollah but they are increasingly weak and also have deeply conflicting priorities. And protest candidates who are seeking to build momentum from public anger, meanwhile, do not seem sufficiently organised to have a big enough electoral impact against established blocs.

The big question in this election is who will inherit Hariri’s parliamentary bloc? If Hezbollah manages to secure it with the help of its Sunni allies, the Iran-backed party will have a cross-sectarian alliance that will control the Lebanese system single-handedly for the next four years. If Riyadh’s allies manage to hold on to it, there will be a counterforce against Hezbollah in the parliament. If October 17 movement candidates secure some of those votes, they can have some say in the future direction of the parliament.

Meanwhile, the tainted legacy of President Michel Aoun has taken a toll on the popularity of his party, the Patriotic Movement, which is currently led by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil. This movement has lost loyalists and independent allies in the past few years, so there is also the question of who will pick up the seats it will likely lose – traditional candidates or those from the October 17 movement? The answer to that question will also help determine the face of Lebanese politics in the coming years.

What to expect

The ruling class seems a bit unnerved on the eve of the election.

While Lebanon’s powerful oligarchs, except parliament speaker Nabih Berri, are not directly running, they are pulling the strings and leading the campaigns. In other words, in this election, we are witnessing an attempt by ageing feudal and traditional political leaders to ensure a transfer of power to their offspring who are now running against anti-system candidates.

The traditional ruling class undoubtedly has much to lose, but the protest movement candidates are also facing a major challenge. If they win a meaningful number of seats, they will find themselves being forced to navigate the system they are – at least on paper – seeking to dismantle, but if they fail to secure significant influence, they will risk losing their best chance at instigating systemic change.

Furthermore, the makeup of the next parliament is already largely set against the interests of the protest movement candidates. The electoral law that was adopted in 2016 – designed to limit the reach of sectarian leaders to their own districts and constituents – makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for any political movement to have an oversized bloc in the parliament. This works against the October 17 movement’s attempts to appeal to the entire nation, and gain votes from a wide base.

In the end, this election will determine little more than the extent of Hezbollah’s influence in the Lebanese system. It will deliver a parliament of minority blocs, rather than a clear majority, which will serve Hezbollah’s interests.

But Sunday’s polls will not only benefit Hezbollah. They will also re-legitimise Lebanon’s long-failing political system to the benefit of traditional elites.

Indeed, the fact that this election is taking place, however inconsequential it may eventually be, gave the Lebanese ruling class a new certificate of legitimacy that would allow it to receive enough resources from the international community to prevent – or at least postpone – the current system’s complete collapse.

This means any efforts for affecting real change in Lebanon should focus not on electoral politics themselves, but on putting pressure on the ruling elites to reform electoral, media and campaign financing laws. Only once these changes are made, can Lebanon experience elections that do more than establish the relative influence of the same old powers and keep alive a failed system.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.