Lebanon’s parliament braced for post-election power struggle

Failure of Lebanese political parties to form a government could jeopardise arrival of international aid

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The leader of Lebanon’s largest Christian party indicated on Thursday that it was preparing for a power struggle with Hezbollah and its allies.

Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces, said he rejected a consensus government and would vote against the re-election of parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally who has held the position since 1992.

Voting on Sunday passed without major incident and Iran-backed Hezbollah lost the clear majority it had in the outgoing parliament, winning, along with its allies, 59 seats out of a total of 128.

With 19 seats, the Lebanese Forces control the next biggest parliamentary bloc, while its Christian rival, the Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement, has 18.

Lebanon’s political parties normally favour consensus governments. This also delays decision-making and is widely viewed as the root cause of the country’s economic collapse in 2019.

Lebanese Forces sources say that negotiating with Hezbollah and its allies is pointless, because they previously failed to implement reforms when they had the opportunity to do so.

But analysts said the current political deadlock could further imperil Lebanon’s finances.

In a speech, Mr Geagea said the “new majority” was formed of “big and small parties and coalitions” that agreed that no group other than the army should be allowed to carry weapons.

Hezbollah kept its arms after the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

The Lebanese Forces leader sought to present himself as a unifying figure against Hezbollah, saying he and his party “reject a national ‘soup government’”, in apparent reference to the consensus governments that Lebanese political parties normally favour.

Mr Geagea said he would “support an effective government that has a clear political programme” and stressed the Lebanese Forces’ “constant endeavour to co-ordinate with all forces of change and opposition that are present in the country”.

Yet analysts said a protracted power struggle and political paralysis could have severe consequences.

Mohanad Hage Ali is a research fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, a think tank.

He said he believed both sides were responsible for the potential impasse.

“The Lebanese Forces is not the only party to blame. This is definitely also a result of Hezbollah’s approach to politics,” he said.

“There’s this dying body next to them,” he said, referring to the crisis-hit country. “And they’re not willing to co-operate in saving it.”

Lebanon’s central bank has less than $10 billion in reserves and spends about half a billion dollars a month on wheat, medicine and fuel subsidies in addition to propping up the local currency.

Poverty soared from 42 per cent of the population in 2019 to 82 per cent last year, according to the UN.

The International Monetary Fund reached a staff-level agreement with Lebanon in April but the country must first undertake “several critical reforms” for which an acting government is preferable.

Forming a government usually involves months of backdoor negotiations between political parties to decide on a new prime minister.

After the 2018 election, which gave Hezbollah and its allies a majority in parliament, politicians took nine months to choose prime minister Saad Hariri.

Mr Hage Ali said that negotiations could drag on even longer after Sunday’s parliamentary election. It remains unclear how the more than 20 opposition and independent candidates will position themselves vis-a-vis the Lebeanese Forces.

Seven people were killed when supporters of Amal and the Lebanese Forces clashed in the streets of Beirut in October last year. AFP

“There’s a high tone against the Lebanese Forces among civil society groups,” Mr Hage Ali said.

Despite Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, stating publicly on Wednesday that he was open to co-operation, Mr Hage Ali said, the Shiite militant group’s unwillingness to engage in a serious discussion about its weapons is taking Lebanon’s financial and economic future hostage.

“Hezbollah could offer to talk about its weapons and engage in serious reforms,” he said. “Meanwhile, the Lebanese Forces want to show that it’s standing firm by its platform and that it wants to face the elephant in the room, which is Hezbollah’s weapons.”

A spokesman from the Lebanese Forces rejected accusations of fuelling polarisation.

"It’s true that there’s an economic reality that needs to be dealt with, but how should we deal with it? By giving Hezbollah and Amal the power to shut down the parliament when things are not in their favour?" the spokesman said.

"If Hezbollah was serious about reforms, they could have implemented it throughout the past years when they had the majority and the absolute freedom to form and lead the agenda of the consecutive governments, but they didn’t."

'Humiliation and tension'

Mr Geagea may manage to embarrass Mr Berri, 84, who leads the Amal Movement, a political party allied with Hezbollah, by making his re-election difficult. There are no other serious contenders for the job because of the nature of Lebanon’s sectarian politics. The parliament speaker must always be Shiite Muslim, and all 27 Shiite Muslim MPs elected to parliament on Sunday belong to Hezbollah or Amal.

But Mr Berri has been continuously designated as parliament speaker since 1992 with a majority, or at least 65 votes, in the first round of voting. The Lebanese constitution allows up to three rounds of voting. The winner in the third round is elected by absolute majority.

“That’s bound to cause some humiliation and tension,” Mr Hage Ali said.

In October last year, seven people were killed when supporters of Amal and the Lebanese Forces clashed in the streets of Beirut over the inquiry into the huge explosion in the capital’s port in August 2020.

Karim Bitar of Saint Joseph University in Beirut, told The National that Mr Geagea’s new hardline position against Mr Berri was a break with the past.

“He always managed to maintain a relatively cordial working and personal relationship with Mr Berri,” Prof Bitar said. “But now Geagea realises that Berri has become very unpopular among Christians and particularly among the reformist youth.”

The new parliament’s mandate starts on Sunday. It will have 15 days to elect a new speaker.

Mr Hage Ali said: “The bottom line is that they can bicker as much as they want, but there’s an economic reality that needs to be dealt with.”

Updated: May 20, 2022, 10:39 AM