Analysis: 2018 Lebanon elections could see unrest

The Lebanese parliamentary elections are taking place on Saturday 6 May after nine years of postponements. Drum's Middle East intelligence experts hare their thoughts on the situation and explain the risk travellers may face.
lebanese flag elections risk drum cussac
lebanese flag elections risk drum cussac
VOA News

Lebanon is preparing for parliamentary elections that will take place on Saturday, 6 May after nine years of multiple postponements.

The elections will be held under a new legal framework using a complicated new electoral law. The next Parliament will select Lebanon’s future prime minister.


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How do elections work in Lebanon?

Lebanon’s new electoral law replaces the “winner takes all” system with multi-member proportional representation, dividing Lebanon among 15 districts where votes can be cast their votes for both a list of candidates competing in their district and a candidate from their subdistrict.

Lebanese lawmakers passed this ‘new vote’ law in June 2017, marking a significant move forward as political work had ground to a halt while lawmakers agreed on the final text.

Politicians promised this new system would grant seats to Lebanon’s traditionally marginalised minorities. They also said it would shake up the sectarian composition of parliamentary blocs and weaken the historical hegemony of major political parties.


Will Lebanon see any political change?

Despite these promises, the upcoming vote is not expected to cause major changes to the government or its policies, with the old guard likely to remain in power. Sunni Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri is widely expected to continue as prime minister and form another unity government that includes the Shia movement Hezbollah.

While the new law may result in a slight decrease in the share of seats for many of the major parties, this reduction is not likely to be a considerable loss for the major blocs.

Independent candidates, hoping to capitalise on political platforms tackling economic problems, reform, secularisation of the state, rule of law, and human rights, will find their chances to attain a seat have improved very little with the new system.

Bribery and corruption remain obstacles while political parties are tightly linked to their sectarian groups, making it difficult for new contenders to succeed.

Could Hezbollah make parliamentary gains?

The new law is even expected to benefit Hezbollah, whose Shia supporters are a minority in the country. It is highly likely the organisation is working to increase its political representation by pressuring smaller sects and political parties to support it in the newly formed constituencies.

At a minimum, Hezbollah is likely to seek to maintain the political status quo, although a greater sweep in electoral seats would turn the balance in its favour. However, it is unlikely that Hezbollah and its allies would gain the two-thirds majority necessary to control the state.

Nonetheless, concern over a Hezbollah victory has reportedly prompted Saudi Arabia, which backs PM Hariri, to intervene in the Baalbek-Hermel governorate, a traditional Hezbollah stronghold with a Shiite majority.

Hezbollah supporters accused Saudi and UAE diplomats of distributing cash to voters in the region in early April. Such activity suggests concern that Hezbollah could make gains in the polls and build on its current 12 parliamentary seats.


Uncertainty and political violence in Lebanon

The new law has, however, made the outcome less predictable in some places, resulting in heightened local rivalries and growing uncertainty. A number of incidents of political violence have taken place in the run-up to the election, highlighting these tensions.

How are tensions rising before the Lebanese elections?

So far, flare-ups have mostly pitted rivals from the same sect against each other. On 22 April, the army intervened to break up a confrontation involving gunfire between supporters of rival Druze parties south of Beirut.

The same day, an independent Shia candidate said Hezbollah supporters beat him while he was hanging an election poster in his home village of Shaqra in Bint Jbeil district.

On 16 April, supporters of Hariri’s Future Movement broke the windows of the office of an electoral rival in Beirut. The executive director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), a group of independent electoral observers, has noted the escalating number of threats to candidates.

Further violence is likely as the polls approach.

How likely are protests?

It is likely that protest actions will take place in the run-up to and following the poll. Families of Islamist prisoners have threatened to boycott and even disrupt the parliamentary elections as a general amnesty is unlikely to go through before the vote as promised by politicians.

The prisoners are predominantly Sunni and from Hariri’s Future Movement support base. Protests and low-level clashes involving Hezbollah and Hariri supporters are a realistic probability as the poll brings to the fore long-standing rivalries.


Lebanese election travel risks

The potential risks for travellers during the Lebanese elections are:

  • Political rallies
  • Protests
  • Traffic disruptions
  • Security crackdowns
  • Violent crowd control measures

Rallies often involve several hundred participants. Common locations for protests in Beirut include the Nijmeh Square leading to the Parliament building and Riad al-Solh Square. Most demonstrations are conducted peacefully, although protesters are likely to block roads, causing travel delays to vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

Any protests near the airport may cause traffic disruptions around the airport and on the highway to and from Beirut city centre.

Security force crackdowns are likely in the event the protest activity protracts or demonstrators attempt to block access to Parliament.

Travellers should avoid busy areas in and around the election, especially if protests are occurring. Crackdowns are likely to involve crowd control measures including batons and the use of tear gas, posing risks of exposure to incidental violence to those in the vicinity.