On 15 May, citizens of Lebanon headed to polling stations until 7 pm local time, where low turnout, political disaffection, anti-establishment feelings, and the effects of hyperinflation dominated the scene. Being the first parliamentary election since the 2019 revolution, the port explosion of 2020, and the collapse of the Lebanese pound, four main issues were at stake. Firstly, would the protests translate into new parliamentary representatives and help topple the old elites? Secondly, how would the economic and currency crisis influence the electorate? Third, who will fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri? And finally, would Hezbollah retain its parliamentary majority? Yet, despite these crucial factors at stake, Lebanon’s intricate political system and power concentrated amongst old elites render dramatic changes unlikely.
Official data from the Ministry of Interior shows a total of 13 newly elected candidates mostly from civil society, ousting historic representatives like the Hezbollah-backed and Druze figurehead, Talal Arslan, or banker Marwan Kheireddine. Even the son-in-law of incumbent President Michel Aoun, Gebran Bassil, came close to losing his seat. His party, the Free Patriotic Movement, suffered a severe loss with its previous 20 seats dropping to 18. They were also overtaken by the Christian Lebanese Forces, which won 20 seats. Bassil blamed the United States and Israel, and an alleged campaign of disinformation for this loss. While the Free Patriotic Movement has supported Hezbollah in previous terms, the Saudi and US-backed Lebanese Forces have maintained a firm position against the militia. The Lebanese Forces celebrated their success soon after polling stations closed, with fireworks in the mostly Christian neighbourhood of Ashrafieh.
On the other hand, the Shia’ political party and militia Hezbollah with its allies lost their majority in parliament, with only 61 seats versus the 75 won in 2018. This loss of representation comes despite an overwhelming presence in the streets during the campaign, mostly in the South districts, the Bekaa Valley, and Dahiyeh, but also within Beirut. Images of Hassan Nasrallah and even the deceased Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani, were well visible across the country, as well as cars and mopeds waving the Hezbollah flag in the streets.
Other political forces include the Amal Movement, aligned with Hezbollah; the Armenian Tashnag, with some elected candidates in Beirut and Zahle; the Progressive Socialist Party, successful in Chouf/Aley with five representatives; or the Maronite Marada Movement and Kataeb. Only eight women won seats from a total of 128.
The Political Climate
These results come in a context of low turnout when compared with the previous election (41% in 2022 vs. 49% in 2018), with peaks of participation among diaspora voters (63.05%), and lows in the district of Beirut I (28.5%), in a general climate of political disaffection, lack of hope for change, and strong discomfort motivated by the overwhelming corruption of the political establishment. Many Lebanese complain about lack of action from many representatives, as in the case of Nabih Berri, speaker of the Parliament since 1992, who has been subject to numerous memes and online jokes: “Maybe he needs another 30 years to do something,” an anonymous Lebanese said.
Some Lebanese have launched their own campaigns to stimulate anti-establishment voting, mostly among the younger population. Such is the case of Shaden Farikh, comedian-turned-rapper under the name of Lil Shadz, whose song “Khod” shares a message of ousting the old political elites who have ruled the country since the 1990s. Similar messages were widespread during the election and campaign, such as the decision of mostly young voters to sink their middle finger instead of thumb in the ink that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provides to prevent voting fraud.
In fact, a series of violations of electoral procedures occurred during the day. As the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) reported, various observers had to leave some polling stations after being threatened or assaulted, notably by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement in the city of Saida. Other stations were forced to suspend voting for a period of time due to shortage of ballot papers and other supplies. Some candidates, including President Michel Aoun, broke electoral silence and campaigned at a polling station. In parts of the country, delegates escorted voters to the voting booth, violating the secrecy of the vote. Also, clashes took place between voters, delegates, and even candidates.
Lebanon’s Electoral System
The electoral system is divided in 15 constituencies, where voters pick a list that may or may not be affiliated with a political party or informal alliance. They can also pick a preferred candidate from that list, which bolsters their chance of election. Each constituency is allocated a number of seats; the number of votes to successfully elect a candidate is determined by the total number of votes cast divided by the total number of seats in the constituency. Voters and candidates must be older than 21 and 25, respectively. The complexity of the system has led many Lebanese to rely on apps like Murasa7i, which provides a detailed list of the candidates, districts, sects, parties, and lists.
Moreover, due to the sectarian political system in Lebanon, candidates must run for a seat in a determined sect. The total of 128 parliamentary seats are divided into 18 sects: Maronite (34 seats), Sunni (27), Shiite (27), Greek Orthodox (14), Roman Catholic (8), Druze (8), Armenian Orthodox (5), Alawi (2), Armenian Catholic (1), Evangelical (1), and other minorities (1). Yet, the arrangement of seats does not necessarily correspond proportionally to the population of each group – the last census was carried out in 1932, when Lebanon was still under French administration. The Sunni and Shia minorities are likely more numerous now than they were at the time. Lebanon has since undergone significant demographic change, most recently due to the Syrian crisis (1.5 million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon), but also as a consequence of the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the displacement and dispossession of Palestinians. An estimated 192,000 Palestinians reside in Lebanon as of 2022. These figures are critical considering Lebanon’s total population is approximately 6.8 million.
While the 2022 elections represent a historic opportunity for new candidates to better administer a country suffering from endemic corruption, the political system and parliamentary divisions hinder the deep reforms that Lebanon needs. The overwhelming control of Hezbollah, almost as a state within a state, does not favour parliamentary consensus, and the opposition that emerged from the 2019 protests is too divided and too small yet to promote meaningful change. The capabilities of the new parliament will be tested as they must address an economic crisis that has led to food, fuel, and electricity shortages for a population where four out of five live under the poverty line.