Earlier this month, Lebanon’s Parliament passed amendments to the electoral law that will govern the country's elections, scheduled for the spring of 2022. Unsurprisingly, the amendments were primarily to ensure that the major blocs in parliament would preserve their legislative power. However, President Michel Aoun’s and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil’s opposition to key amendments has complicated matters somewhat.
Two of the amendments were the most telling. First, Parliament set the election date for March 27, 2022, a month-and-a-half earlier than the expected date of May 8. Second, one amendment allowed voting by Lebanese of the diaspora, as in 2018, but specified they would vote for parliamentarians in their areas of origin rather than for candidates who were part of a special six-seat diaspora circumscription.
Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil immediately protested, and the President refused to sign the new law. Mr Aoun cannot block legislation, but he can delay it by sending it back to Parliament to be amended.
The two amendments were linked. By advancing the election date, most blocs, led by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, which is headed by the Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, sought to do a couple of things. The first is to disenfranchise young voters who in May would have turned 21, the voting age, reducing an electorate largely hostile to the political leadership. Mr Aoun has estimated their number at over 10,000 voters.
And second, they sought to emasculate the diaspora vote. A majority of diaspora voters are, like Mr Bassil, Christian, and he hopes to win many of their votes because he is the official who took the lead in granting them voting rights. But because of international sanctions against Hezbollah, the party cannot freely campaign in diaspora communities, adding to its lack of enthusiasm for overseas voting.
Moreover, in blocking a separate six-seat diaspora bloc, parliamentarians have ensured that diaspora votes will be watered down in current circumscriptions, because many Lebanese abroad are highly critical of the politicians. The decision has also prevented a separate, new bloc in parliament that could augment the one led by Mr Bassil.
Other motives were also behind holding an election in March. It gives less time for opposition groups to form unified lists, favouring establishment parties. An early election would also prevent the head of the General Security Directorate, Abbas Ibrahim, from standing. As a civil servant, he would need to have retired six months prior to the election in order to be a candidate. Reportedly, Mr Berri wants to prevent this as many people regard Mr Ibrahim as Mr Berri’s likely successor.
But one thing looms over the spring parliamentary elections above all – namely, the presidential election next fall. If there is one reason why a majority of blocs do not want a diaspora vote, it is to deny Mr Bassil an opportunity to say that he retains popularity among Christians, and therefore is entitled to succeed Mr Aoun, his father-in-law, as President. Given the widespread unpopularity of Mr Bassil domestically, this is hardly a secondary issue.
Mr Bassil has said that he would appeal the amendments to the Constitutional Council, but for now his decision has been put on hold. If the council takes time to decide, it could delay the registration of diaspora voters, and therefore the elections. This outcome that may satisfy many parliamentary blocs who are uncertain as to how the elections might affect their power.
A delay in elections could also mean, potentially, that the current Parliament elects the next president, even if this is not very likely. Mr Bassil does not have a majority in this legislature. While Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil are wedded to the status quo, they have destabilised the political class by playing populist politics to boost Mr Bassil’s candidacy. The other forces in parliament therefore may see an opening to undermine his ambitions.
The major takeaway from the amendments, is that the political leaders continue to prevent change to the political system over which they preside. While the election law is based on proportionality, projecting a sense of openness to new forces, the threshold to enter parliament is high and is weighed against non-establishment lists.
Opposition lists have been working for months to form a national coalition, but the effort has been hampered by divisions over tactics. There is still a large reservoir of resentment against a political class that has plundered Lebanon and impoverished its society, so surprises are to be expected. Yet widescale dependency has also given sectarian political parties more leverage over the vulnerable electorate.
For now, the disagreements over the amended election law largely involve the petty calculations of the political leaders. The population is only useful as a factor in regulating their rivalries. While this should have given impetus to a profound anti-elite sentiment in the country, the politicians will likely manipulate the elections to re-legitimise themselves, after two years of facing public opprobrium.
This tells us much about what elections have become in Lebanon. Rather than being a referendum on the leaders' performance, they are now a prop allowing politicians to perpetuate political immovability. That is not to say the elections serve no purpose, but when the interests of the people are the things least affected by the outcome of the vote, it is easy to see why Lebanon is in such dire straits.