Lebanon

Last update: 3 months ago

Politics in Lebanon are based on a post-civil war imposed sectarian system. The presidency is reserved for a Christian; the prime minister post for a Sunni; and the post of Parliament Speaker for a Shiite. Divisions within the sectarian groups, as well as those between the March 14 Alliance and March 8 Alliance have left the country in a political deadlock for months. Lebanon has been without a president for over a year and a half, and a national dialogue aimed at ending the power vacuum has not resulted in progress. Several parties, including Hezbollah, have boycotted parliament. As a result, parliament has been paralysed. The ongoing waste crisis in the country sparked protests, while 1.3 million Syrian refugees increased tensions even more. The ongoing Syrian civil war has led to increased polarisation in the country, while both Iran and Saudi Arabia wield influence through the rival alliances. 

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Map of Lebanon

Short facts

Population:
5,850,743 million (World Bank 2015 est.)
Governmental Type:
Republic
Ruling Coalition:
-
Last Elections:
31 October 2016 (presidential elections)
Next Elections:
2017 (parliamentary elections)
Sister Parties:
Progressive Socialist Party (PSP)
Image of Michel Aoun

Michel Aoun

President

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Image of Saad Hariri

Saad Hariri

Prime Minister

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Political Situation

Lebanon has experienced many wars, both civil and international. After the war against Israel, major hostilities seemed to have declined. However, a political crisis erupted between rival Lebanese factions, mainly over the issue of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. This Tribunal investigated the assassination of Rafic Hariri, former Prime Minister of the country. The Doha Agreement finally ended the political crisis in 2008, in which a consensus was found among all parties to nominate Michel Sleiman as President. It paved the way towards new parliamentary elections. A new electoral law was drafted changing the voting system for the parliamentary polls in 2009. Yet the government formed by the 2009 elections was overthrown in 2011. Nevertheless, three primary issues are still causing frictions between parties: a pro- or anti-Syrian stance, the cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and the disarmament of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah ('Party of God') is a Shia Islamist militant group that started as a small militia before joining Lebanese politics. Initially, it was conceived by Muslim clerics and funded by Iran, in order to fight the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Its manifesto called for the destruction of Israel. Although it is considered a terrorist organisation by most Western countries, it now enjoys seats in the government, a radio and television station. After the death of Abbas al-Musawi in 1992, the organisation has been headed by Hassan Nasrallah, its Secretary-General.

Lebanon is a Republic. The National Assembly indirectly elects the head of state, the president. Initially (since the constitution of 1926), the president was elected for a six years term. However in 2004, the National Assembly of Lebanon voted in favour of an amendment which allowed President Lahoud to stay in office for three more years. The President, upon a binding consultation with the National Assembly, appoints the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister chooses the cabinet, after consultation of the President and the National Assembly. The unicameral National Assembly of Lebanon is elected for a four years period. The 128 seats in the National Assembly are equally divided among Muslims and Christians. Each of the eleven confessional subgroups occupies a fixed number of seats in the National Assembly. 

Due to this unusual division of seats in the National Assembly, the role of political parties in Lebanese politics is different from the role of political parties in normal parliamentary democracies. Many of the political parties are lists of candidates, supported by an important local figure. Political coalitions are therefore only formed because of electoral reasons, and easily fall apart once the seats in parliament are secured. This form of parliamentary politics sustains a form of politics, based on satisfying instantly the grassroots support, rather than that it supports politics based on ideology and long-term objectives. 

Analysts say that Lebanese politics is both complicated and confusing. The combination of the fixed division of seats among the various religious groups, together with the many local candidates of different religions, makes it hard to get a clear view of the relative strength of political parties in the National Assembly. 

The National Assembly is elected by a system of multi-member constituencies with each voter having one vote. The party winning most votes takes all the seats in the district, and its entire list of candidates is duly elected. Because of practical and safety reasons, the elections are held in four terms, which means that the National Assembly is elected in six different constituencies, on four different moments. Lebanon has no legal electoral threshold and no compulsory voting. Lebanon has universal suffrage for all men, with a minimum age of 21. Women should have an elementary education and the minimum age of 21 in order to be authorised to vote. Remarkably, voters do not vote according to their place of residence, but according to their “civil record”, usually the residence of their forefathers. 

Another remarkable topic in Lebanese politics is the fact that there is a division of the most important positions among the three big religious groups in the Lebanese society. This means that the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister is always a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the National Assembly is always a Shiite Muslim. This close connection of politics and religion is one of the bottlenecks for Lebanese politics.

Recent developments

In November 2014, parliament voted for the third time to put off elections - which should originally have been held in June 2013 - this time until 2017. Since the spring of 2014, parliament has gathered nine times in an attempt to elect a new president. The National Pact, agreed upon in 1943, states that the President should be a Maronite Christian. Exceptions are made when the Prime Minister (Sunni Muslim) has had to step in as acting President. Since 25 May 2014, Prime Minister Tammam Salam has stepped in as acting President. However, Syrian influence has caused a deadlock on these elections in two manners. Even though the Syrian conflict has made it difficult for Damascus to influence the electoral process in Lebanon, the Syrian regime is able to block it. Pro-Hezbollah parliamentarians refuse to attend the election sessions, making it impossible for candidates to gain a two-thirds majority of the legislature. 

The Syrian conflict has divided Lebanese society along religious lines. Hezbollah fights and lobbies to save the Syrian regime, the Resistance is backing the Syrian government out of fear of future reprisals, the Sunnite leadership claims neutrality and Christians are split: some are neutral, others support Assad as they fear a power vacuum will create Islamist control in the country. Thus two opposing blocks are created: the Shiite movement Hezbollah and its supporters backing the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while many Sunni Muslims sympathise with the rebel fighters who are trying to oust him.

Elections

New government formation 2013

On 22 March 2013, incumbent Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned after his attempt to form a committee to oversee the next general elections that was supposed to take place in November 2014. Parliament voted for extension of the existing parliament until 2017. He failed to do so, because of opposing sides in Syria's civil war between parties aligned with Hezbollah and Sunni-led rival bloc. The new government that came out two weeks after, was lead by Tamman Salam. He was backed by the March 14 Alliance, the Progressive Socialist Party and Amal. Nevertheless, it took 10 months for Salam to form a government which was announced on 15 February 2014, due to rivalries between the Hezbollah-dominated March 8 Alliance and the March 14 Alliance, led by the Sunni Future Party. "This is a unity cabinet that represents at the present time the best formula for Lebanon with all the political, security, economic and social challenges it is facing," Salam said. Among the top posts announced, former Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, from the March 8 Alliance, becomes Foreign Minister. Former Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, also from March 8, takes the finance portfolio. Nouhad Machnouk, a March 14 legislator, was named Interior Minister.

New government formation 2011

On 12 January 2011, all of the March 8 Alliance ministers in the government resigned from the coalition formed by Saad Hariri in November 2009. The March 8 Alliance, consisting of Hezbollah and its allies, said they disagreed about the commitment to the Special Tribunal of Lebanon, that investigated the murder on former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah members were expected to be indicted in the case. The Lebanese however have been told by Hezbollah that the UN Tribunal was allied to Israel.

Directly after the resignation, President Sleiman appointed Najib Mikati as new Prime Minister. He won the support of a majority of the members of the parliament and was asked to form a new government. The March 14 Alliance opted out of talks from the beginning due to disagreements about the disarmament of Hezbollah and the cooperation with the Special Tribunal of Lebanon. After five months of laborious negotiations with the remaining parties, a new 30-member cabinet dominated by Hezbollah and its allies took office on 13 June 2011.

The main obstacles for the arduous negotiations were firstly whether the March 8 Alliance would have to cooperate with March 14 Alliance like before, or with centrist parties. Secondly, whether the members of the cabinet should increase from 24 to 30. Thirdly, whether the cabinet should comprise politicians, technocrats or a mix. Fourthly, how the portfolios had to be distributed. And lastly, whether the government should cooperate with the UN Tribunal. After the formation of the new government, Mikati explained that the new government would cooperate with the Tribunal, as long as it wouldn’t destabilise the country.

18 persons were representing Hezbollah and its allies, 12 politicians were appointed by Prime Minister Mikati, President Sleiman and Jumblatt. The portfolios were redistributed through proportional representation. For this reason, Hezbollah only had 2 ministers working in the Cabinet, whereas the Free Patriotic Movement was represented by 7 ministers. Women made up 3.1% of the seats in the national parliament, which corresponded to 4 seats.  

Reactions

The March 14 Alliance called the March 8 Alliance a ‘Hezbollah-government’ and ‘pro-Syrian’. “The country is now being held hostage by the Syrian regime and Hezbollah”, a leader of one of the March 14 parties said. Prime Minister Mikati says he is moderate and tries to unite Lebanon, by giving voices to all persuasions. He assured “it is a government for all Lebanese, no matter what party they support, be it the majority or the opposition”.

Parliamentary elections

On 7 June 2009, parliamentary elections were held in Lebanon. Saad Hariri, the leader of Lebanon's March 14 Alliance, claimed victory hours after the polls closed on polling day. Official results of the election were announced on 8 June. The pro-Western March 14 Alliance won 71 seats, and the Hezbollah dominated March 8 Alliance won 57 seats. Independent candidates did not win any seats. This result almost replicates the situation that existed in the outgoing parliament, in which the pro-Western bloc had 70 seats, and an alliance of Hezbollah and other Shiite and Christian factions had 58 seats. The turnout of 52.3% was high compared to the turnout of 45.8% in the elections of 2005. About 50,000 troops were on the streets, but the run-up to the balloting had been free of violence. The vote was seen as a proxy battle between the influence of the West and its Arab allies on one side, and Iran and Syria on the other. 

Results

March 14 Alliance

Seats

March 8 Alliance

Seats

Future Bloc   

30

Reform and change Block - Aounist Bloc 

25

Independants

13

Liberation and Development Bloc

13

Democratic Movement Bloc

10

Resistance Bloc (Hezbollah)

11

Lebanse Forces Bloc

5

Baath Party

2

Kataeb Party - Phalangist Bloc

5

Syrian Social Nationalist Party

2

Tripoli Bloc

3

Lebanese Democratic Party

1

Allied Independants

3

Islamic Action Bloc

1

National Liberal Party

1

Solidarity Party

1

Jamaa Islamiya Bloc

1

Independent

1

Total

71

Total

57

Saad Hariri urged supporters to celebrate without provoking opponents. Hezbollah admitted it had lost the election and accepted the results. 

Election analysis 

The election was crucial in determining whether the Arab nation, scarred by war and political instability, would choose the coalition led by Hariri (and supported by the West) or an alliance backed by the militant group Hezbollah. The election was also an early test of President Barack Obama's efforts to forge Middle East peace. The United States signaled concerns over a possible win by Hezbollah months before the election. A win by Hezbollah would have boosted the influence of its backers Iran and Syria, and risked pushing one of the region's most volatile nations into international isolation and possibly into deeper conflict with Israel. The prevalent expectations were that Hezbollah and its allies would win. These assessments were backed by opinion polls, which predicted a slim majority for the March 8 camp. Moreover, it seemed that the victory of these factions was a natural development given the spirit of the times: the weakening of the status of the United States and its Arab allies, compared with the strengthened influence of Iran and its allies – Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Still, the elections resulted in a victory for the pro-Western camp. How can this be understood? 

It seems several factors are behind Hezbollah’s weaker showing according to Middle-East security analyst Amir Kulick. One of the main sources for the surprise lies in the assessment that the success of the March 14 Alliance in the previous elections incorrectly reflected the true balance of power in the Lebanese political system. They were held shortly after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005 and the ensuing public outrage at Syria’s allies in Lebanon – Hezbollah and the March 8 camp. It was suggested that the balance of power between the vying blocs was actually even, perhaps slightly favouring the March 8 camp, and the 2009 elections were supposed to restore the political order to its correct alignment. A second factor may lie in the Lebanese system itself. At the center of this explanation stands Michel Aoun’s failure to enlarge his power base in the Christian sector. Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, was the surprise of the previous elections. Different estimates, especially those within his own close circle, maintained that in the current elections his power would grow significantly because most of the Christian sector stood behind him. The changes in the voting districts made under Hezbollah pressure in the Doha Agreement of May 2008, were supposed to help Aoun attain this goal. In practice, Aoun failed to garner additional support, and his party even lost one mandate. In this sense, the gap between the expectations of the Free Patriotic Movement with Aoun at its head and the actual results is significant. A third factor behind Hezbollah’s poor showing – at least compared to expectations – was its inability to reach beyond the borders of the Shiite community and become a national political establishment acceptable to large segments of the Lebanese public. It seems that the May 2008 violence significantly damaged the organisation’s national image and demonstrated to the Lebanese public – the Sunnis and the Christians – that the Weapon of Resistance is no less dangerous to the Lebanese than to Israel.

International reactions 

The election has been called generally fair and free by international observers. "While not without flaws, Lebanon's June 7 election was fundamentally peaceful and well administered and should provide the basis for confidence in the electoral process and by extension, the formation of a new government," former US Senator John Sununu said, presenting the preliminary findings of the National Democratic Institute's observation mission.

Javier Solana, EU's Foreign and Security Policy Chief at that time, said the elections in Lebanon were an important step in the democratic evolution of the Middle East. US President Barack Obama congratulated the Lebanese people for a peaceful national election held with courage and a commitment to democracy. Arch-enemy Israel appeared relieved by the March 14 victory, but said it would hold Beirut accountable for any attacks on its territory launched from Lebanon. 

Aftermath 

The smooth formation of a new government could be seen as an important test of March 14's political strength and more importantly it could contribute to the stability of the country. Saad Hariri, the son of killed Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and leader of the March 14 Alliance, even involved the Hezbollah-led opposition in the cabinet, resulting in a unity government of March 14 and March 8 ministers.

Political parties

Social Democratic Parties

Progressive Socialist Party (PSP)

Party Leader: Walid Jumblatt

Number of seats: 11

http://www.psp.org.lb

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Other Parties

Future Movement

Party Leader: Sa’ad al Hariri

Number of seats: 28

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Free Patriotic Movement (FPM)

Party Leader: General Michel Aoun

Number of seats: 19

http://www.tayyar.org/tayyar/index.php

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Hezbollah

Party Leader: Mohammed Ra’ad

Number of seats: 13

http://www.moqawama.net/english/index.php

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Lebanese Forces (LF)

Party Leader: Sethrida Geagea

Number of seats: 8

http://www.lebanese-forces.org

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Biographies

Image of Michel Aoun

Michel Aoun

President

Read biography
Image of Saad Hariri

Saad Hariri

Prime Minister

Read biography

Walid Jumblatt

Leader of the Progressive Socialist Party

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Sources

  • Azar, F. and E. Mullet (2002) Muslims and Christians in Lebanon: Common Views on Political Issues. Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 39, No. 6 (Nov.,2002), 735-746 
  • Dah, A., Dibeh, G. and W. Shahin (1998) The Distributional Impact of Taxes in Lebanon. Midterm Report. Beirut: Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. 
  • European Union Election Observation Mission (2005) Parliamentary Elections 2005 Lebanon. Final Report. · Khoury, M. El and U. Panizza (2001) Poverty and Social Mobility in Lebanon. A few Wild Guesses. Beirut: Department of Economics American University 
  • Makdisi, Ussama (1996) Reconstructing the Nation-State: The Modernity of Sectarianism in Lebanon. Middle East Report, No. 200, Minorities in the Middle East: Power and the Politics of Difference (Jul. – Sep., 1996), 23-26+30 
  • Wenger, M. and J. Denney (1990) Lebanon’s Fifteen-Year War 1975-1990. Middle East Report, No. 162, Lebanon’s War (Jan. – Feb., 1990), 23-25