Lebanese elections: Major shifts in political scene 'difficult', experts say

Just hours remaining ahead of the parliamentary election day in Lebanon – a time of trial for the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies amidst sprawling poverty and hunger amplified by wheat shortages resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Global analysts wonder whether Hezbollah will be ousted by the frustrated Lebanese society or will it survive and continue to hold sway over the country experiencing its most destabilising crisis since the civil war of 1975-1990. Despite the economic crisis, which has seen the currency sink by more than 90 percent and anger over the Beirut harbour blast of 2020 still boiling, expectations of an administrative makeover remain minuscule.

A hope that reformist candidates could win some seats prevails among analysts, however, reforms have been an onerous enterprise in Lebanon due to sectarian loyalties making the administrative system near-to-impenetrable. The Lebanese parliament is divided among 11 religious groups and tends to favourise the establishment.

"It’s difficult to see a major shift in the political scene because the independent candidates did not really have much time to organise, to set up their programs and they don’t have the funds to actually compete with the political class,” Mohanad Hage Ali, a Senior Fellow at Carnegie Middle East Center, says.

The economic crisis afflicting the country, with about three-quarters of the population in poverty and savers frozen out of deposits in paralysed banks, means political support has become transactional, as the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (Lade)’s Cendrella Azar put it.

“We have the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences, the [2020] port blast and its consequences, and we have a very big economic crisis pushing people to look for their most basic rights – and therefore we have a very big problem that is political clientelism,” she says.

Hezbollah unfazed

The 2018 election saw a victory of 71 seats out of 128 for the armed-to-the-teeth Shi'ite movement Hezbollah and its allies, among others President Michel Aoun's Christian party of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). The result was such that Lebanon gravitated further into the perimeter of Shi'ite Muslim-led Iran, distancing Sunni Muslims supported by Saudi Arabia.

While Hezbollah has said it expected few changes from the make-up of the current parliament, its opponents, including the Saudi-aligned Lebanese Forces, expressed ambitions to scoop up seats from the FPM. But Hezbollah intends to fill the gap left by boycotting Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri.

To add a contingency to the equation, the parliament is also due to elect a new president to replace Aoun, whose term ends on October 31.

Analysts say Lebanon could slump into another period of paralysis that could further protract reforms needed to resolve the crisis. The sole process of working out a multisectarian power-sharing cabinet could take months.

A considerable turnout came from abroad where 60 percent of expatriates went to the ballot boxes saying they want change.