For the first time in nine years, Lebanese voters will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. Lebanon’s multiparty democracy is divided along many the same (and some new) sectarian lines which were once exploited by the crisis the occupier regime in Palestine created in 1975. Today, the election which is expected to proceed in a peaceful manner will serve not only as the basis for determining the political trajectory of Lebanon, but will even more importantly serve as an ideological barometer that will have vast implications throughout the wider Arab world.
While much of the voting in today’s election will be expectedly sectarian and while by convention Lebanon’s Presidency is reserved for a Christian, the Premiership for a Sunni Muslim and the Parliamentary speakership for a Shi’a Muslim, the fact that the composition of Lebanon’s parliament changes at all from election cycle to election cycle is due to the following important factors:
1. Upstart parties rivalling more established parties for the loyalty of any one confessional (or ethno-confessional) group
2. Parties with a pan-Lebanese message attracting enough voters outside of their standard confessional (or ethno-confessional) sect to swing the election.
3. Subtle demographic changes within individual constituencies.
4. Subtle changes to electoral laws.
In this sense, all eyes will be on Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Resistance party whose militia acts as a de-facto auxiliary to the Army and foreign legion for the Lebanese state, a fact recently acknowledged by Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun.
Beyond mandatory parliamentary parity between Christian and Muslim + Druze parties, this election is the first in which multi-member constituencies will be elected on the basis of proportional representation. Prior to this, members of parliament were selected by allowing voters in multi-member constituencies to vote as many times as there were seats in their constituency. For example, under the old system in a hypothetical four member constituency, a voter could vote for members of the same party four individual times. Under the new system, members will be selected on the basis of the proportion of the total votes they received in any given constituency.
The new system will likely help parties that represent a confessional (or ethno-confessional) minority in any given constituency to reach a possible threshold of victory (in terms of gaining parliamentary representation) that would have been more difficult under the old system. Realistically, this could mean that in a hypothetical Sunni dominated constituency with a sizeable Shi’a minority, while the leading Sunni party Future Movement would likely have the most votes, one could still see a leading Shi’a party, the Amal Movement for example, gain some parliamentary representation in such a constituency.
But beyond questions of sectarian electoral arithmetic, the real test will be the overall competition between the Shi’a, Christian, moderate secular and leftists parties that have supported the Syrian government during the current conflict in Syria versus the Sunni, Christian, secular and right-wing parties that have opposed the Syrian government. In this sense, while the pro-Damascus March 8 Alliance and anti-Damascus March 14 Alliance are not fighting the present election under a united front, the dynamics of the election will continue to hinge upon the collective popularity of the parties within these two erstwhile blocs.
To put it in ideological terms, today’s election will serve as a referendum on whether a plurality or even a majority of Lebanese favour relations with a re-united, secular Ba’athist Syria or whether they will join with the voices which emanate most loudly from the Arab states of the Persian Gulf who remain opposed to the current Syrian government.
In this sense, while Hezbollah, the party that has been the most active in supporting the Syrian government has played down possible gains for its members and their electoral allies in the Amal Group and in some regions with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, the reality is that if Hezbollah/Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement even increase their vote share slightly vis-a-vis 2009, it will be seen as a collective victory for the pro-Damascus voices in Lebanon and also a victory for parties which take a hardline approach to anti-Zionism.
By contrast, if the vote for former members of the March 8 Alliance stagnates or decreases, it will be a sign that for all the political and military fighting that Hezbollah did in Syria, such moves were ultimately rejected by a plurality of Lebanese, while it would also mean that the still mysterious “kidnapping” episode where Saudi authorities refused to allow Lebanon’s Sunni Future Movement Premier Saad Hariri leave Saudi soil while also refusing him contact with the outside world, will have had less of a negative impact on pro-Riyadh factions than anticipated.
Realistically, the composition of the parliament after today’s elections will not be dramatically different from the 2009 parliament. This will likely be the case due to the fact that certain confessional and ethno-confessional sects are guaranteed seats according to Lebanese law. Furthermore, the gains that certain pro-Damascus parties are expected to make will in part be due to a new fairer proportional representation system.
However, beyond this, whatever gains are made on the part of pro-Damascus parties will be seen as a de-facto stamp of approval for influential Lebanese parties that have supported Syrian President Al-Assad’s war against terrorism from 2011 up through the present day. Such a reality would also show that the campaign of Iranophobia that the Gulfi Arabs and United States have waged throughout the Arab world will have failed to convince Lebanese voters that alleged Iranian influence in the Arab world is a detriment to Lebanon’s sovereignty.
If the quiet confidence of the pro-Damascus parties is vindicated in the vote, it will further be a sign that as the country in the Arab world most historically prone to both internal conflict and the spillover effect of conflicts in Palestine and Syria – the electorate will have stuck by their principles and embraced a sovereign, peaceful Lebanon that on the whole, is supportive of both the Syrian struggle against terrorism and the Palestinian struggle against occupation.