On May 15, voters in Lebanon will head to the polls for parliamentary elections while members of the Lebanese diaspora cast their votes last weekend. The contest comes at a time of profound economic crisis and governmental breakdown in the country, yet it is unlikely to result in meaningful change to a dysfunctional political establishment.
These elections will be the first since the outbreak of major antigovernment demonstrations in October 2019. Frustrated by worsening public services, economic mismanagement, and corruption, Lebanese residents took to the streets to call for an overhaul of the political system. Yet conditions only grew worse in the subsequent years, punctuated by a devastating August 2020 chemical explosion in the port of Beirut that was traced to egregious government negligence.
The public outrage has emboldened independent and opposition parties, while galvanizing members of the Lebanese diaspora – who outnumber the resident population by at least three to one – to register to vote on an unprecedented scale. Polls have already shown diaspora voter turnout at nearly 60 percent, with well over twice as many expats participating in this election compared with 2018.
Nevertheless, the establishment parties have presided over a long period of democratic decline, ensuring that the odds are stacked against any challengers to the establishment order. Even if the new opposition forces succeed at the ballot box, it is clear that repairing the damage caused by years of misrule will require painstaking reform.
A Decade of Democratic Decline
The rot in Lebanon’s democratic institutions has been festering for years, creating a daunting array of challenges for any reform effort. According to the latest findings from Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, freedom has been declining steadily in Lebanon for the past decade. Political rights have been weakened by rampant corruption among the ruling elites, which in turn has pushed the country to the brink of state failure and exposed it to a wave of interference from foreign actors, most notably the regime in Iran.
The same ruling elites have worked to narrow opportunities for genuine political opposition. For example, despite a 2017 electoral law that was ostensibly designed to improve political representation, established sectarian parties were able to maintain and even strengthen their hold on power in the 2018 elections. These groups have notably benefited from political gerrymandering, used propaganda and intimidation to box out opposition groups, and promised preferential access to material benefits – from humanitarian aid to cash to employment in civil services – to their supporters in a sophisticated system of clientelism. Vote buying allegations were widespread in the 2018 elections, and concerns have emerged that the practice will be repeated this year.
Civil liberties in Lebanon have also dwindled over the past decade. The proliferation of progovernment or partisan news outlets and increased assaults on critical journalists have tarnished the country’s reputation as a hub for free expression in the region. In recent years, internet freedom has deteriorated as partisan trolls spread disinformation and target critics with online harassment and smear campaigns. In an information ecosystem that already lacked diversity, deliberate attempts to manipulate information around the elections could undermine faith in the electoral system and complicate voters’ efforts to make informed choices at the polls.
The economic crisis, which has collapsed major pillars of Lebanon’s post-civil war economy, looms large against the backdrop of the election. Basic public services are sparse and skilled Lebanese are leaving the country in droves. The outcome of the elections will have lasting implications for the Lebanese economy and experts believe that Lebanon’s economic model is in dire need of restructuring. Meanwhile, a deal with the IMF or aid packages from foreign actors like Iran may be the swiftest methods for Lebanon to reverse its financial collapse – but many of these potential bailouts are linked to reform commitments. Overall, access to these financial resources, and the strings attached to them, will be determined by the election results and the aftermath of the vote, including whether political leaders and their constituencies accept the results.
The Uphill Battle for Independent Parties
At stake on May 15 are the 128 seats of Lebanon’s National Assembly, from which independent and opposition candidates have largely been excluded in past elections. A victory this time is still unlikely – though not impossible.
Two major blocs have dominated Lebanese politics for nearly two decades. The March 14 Alliance – led by the Lebanese Forces, Future Movement, and Kataeb political parties – formed in 2005 to oppose Syrian political influence and has since evolved into an anti-Iranian bloc consisting largely of Sunni Muslims and their Christian allies. The rival, pro-Syrian March 8 Alliance—led by Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement—grew to become a pro-Iranian bloc dominated by Shia Muslims and their own Christian allies. These alliances have each benefited from electoral laws that favor traditional sectarian leaders and effectively buttress a polarized status quo.
But both alliances have experienced setbacks in recent months. In January, former prime minister Saad Hariri announced that he would not run as a Future Movement candidate, arguing that Iranian influence has left no room for positive political change. In March, current Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced that he would not run for reelection, adding to concerns about a vacuum in Lebanon’s Sunni leadership.
The Shiite-led March 8 bloc has also faced challenges in the last year that could hurt its chances at the polls. Support for the Free Patriotic Movement plummeted after Gebran Bassil – the party’s leader – was popularly pilloried in the 2019 protests; it fell further when Bassil hamstrung efforts to reform the government in the wake of the Beirut port explosion. Public mistrust toward Hezbollah has become more widespread since the group threatened a judge responsible for investigating the explosion, contributing to violent clashes last October.
The fractures and scandals within these established political blocs could help independent parties win additional parliamentary seats across voting districts. Members of the Lebanese diaspora, particularly those who had never shown interest in voting in the past, could also influence the outcome: the number of diaspora voters who voted in the 2022 elections is well over double the figure for the 2018 polls. Many of these voters left Lebanon specifically because of the establishment’s failures, and their participation could swing the results in favor of newer parties.
An Opportunity to Reverse Course
Flawed as they are, Lebanon’s remaining democratic institutions still offer voters and politicians a chance to pull the country out of its long decline.
The first step is to ensure that these elections proceed as scheduled, despite calls from major political blocs to delay the balloting. Moreover, independent and opposition parties must be allowed to meaningfully participate in the contest, and polling places must be secure and neutral, free from the domination and coercion by political parties’ agents that characterized the last national elections. Finally, media freedoms must be respected before, during, and after the vote to ensure that those following the election can access reliable information about the contest and its results.
But regardless of the electoral outcome, the new National Assembly will need to take immediate steps to strengthen the country’s heavily damaged democracy, in part by bolstering safeguards against political corruption and protections for free expression. The economic crisis, which has resoundingly degraded the dignity and basic human rights of the Lebanese people, must also be addressed. These efforts, whether through an IMF bailout or other financial aid packages, must not interfere with the integrity of the election. However, given the multipronged challenges facing the country, it will inevitably take more than ushering in a new assembly of lawmakers to provide an exit from Lebanon’s misery.