Lebanon goes to the polls at last

It’s been a long time between drinks for Lebanese psephologists. The previous parliamentary election was in 2009; terms are supposed to be four years, but the 2013 election was repeatedly postponed due to stresses from the civil war in neighboring Syria. It was finally held on Sunday.

The delay allowed parliament to reform the electoral law. Parliament is still based on multi-member constituencies (lightly revised – there are now 15 of them), but the old block plurality system has been replaced by proportional representation. The most distinctive feature, however, remains: each constituency has a fixed religious balance, with seats allocated among ten different sects (plus one seat shared by the leftover Christian groups).

Also unchanged is the overall balance between Muslims and Christians, 64 seats each. Since the current population numbers are believed to be more like 60-40, there’s a substantial over-representation of Christians. As I’ve mentioned before, there are no seats reserved for atheists; “Muslim” and “Christian” identify membership of a community, not necessarily actual religious belief. (Wikipedia has a great deal more detail.)

Together with Lebanon’s heavily factionalised politics, the system makes it almost impossible to put together a stable majority. There have been four governments since 2009, each of them a very broad coalition and each requiring a long period of horse trading before being formed.

The main divide in Lebanese politics is between pro- and anti-Syrian – although with Syria’s descent into chaos that would be better expressed as pro- and anti-Assad. But parties and individuals are capable of moving from one side to the other with surprising ease. The two fixed points these days are Hezbollah, the mainly Shia party and militia, on the Assad side, and Saad Hariri, currently prime minister and leader of the largest Sunni party, the Future Movement, who is reliably anti-Assad because his father was assassinated by Syrian agents in 2005.

But neither side has been able to entirely exclude the other from government, and it’s unlikely to happen this time either. Certainly the pro-Assad side has made gains: it’s reported that Hariri’s party has lost 12 seats, and that Hezbollah allies have picked up seats. But the main Christian parties have also done well – the Free Patriotic Movement, the party of president Michel Aoun, and the Lebanese Forces, led by Samir Geagea. At present the former is pro-Assad and the latter anti, but it would be unwise to take that as a constant.

Results are still incomplete, but turnout was only 49.2%, well down on 2009; Hariri blamed the complexity of the new electoral system, but it could also be that Lebanese voters had just lost the habit.

By convention, the prime minister must by a Sunni Muslim (just as the president must be a Christian), and Hariri, although weakened, will still be in contention for the job. But it’s most unlikely that anyone will be able to form a government without coming to terms with Hezbollah.

That’s bad news for Saudi Arabia, which last year held Hariri hostage for a time in an attempt to force Lebanon to adopt a more strongly anti-Assad and anti-Iranian position. But once he returned to Lebanon, Hariri was convinced by Aoun to stay on, and Saudi strongman Mohammad bin Salman (perhaps despairing of the Syrian opposition) seems to have moved on to other things.

Updates to come as the picture becomes clearer. Last time around, however, the formation of a government took five months, so don’t expect rapid progress.



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