Small is big in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections. Many Lebanese are seizing the opportunity to celebrate a mini triumph in the form of the election of 13 independent opposition candidates, most of whom were activists who took part in the country’s long-running popular protest movement for change. It is a step in a thousand-mile road.
But it is a victory that brings with it a lot of hope in a country that has suffered economic collapse, an explosion that rocked the city and killed more than 200 people and a banking crisis that depleted life savings for majority of Lebanese, leaving them in anger with a political elite they deem as corrupt and dysfunctional.
Four of the thirteen opposition parliamentarians are women (among a total of eight women who won, an increase from six the last time around). And although 13 independent seats is not a big number in comparison to the 128 divided by different powers, it is still a breakthrough in modern Lebanese history.
In previous years, the Parliament has been dominated by powers like the militant group Hezbollah, who for years had the upper hand in deciding the country’s politics and foreign relations, leading to the sanctions that are imposed on Lebanon today.
Perhaps the 13 seats won’t bring about the necessary changes to reverse the country’s economic collapse, but they may create some pressure on the legislative body to present the views of young and independent Lebanese who want to see real change.
In much of the Arab World, change is often connected to ending tyranny and enabling real representation. Just look at neighbouring Syria, where those demands ended up with a war that made 6 million Syrians seek refuge abroad and left nearly 9 million internally displaced.
But the story is different in Lebanon. Because there is a margin for political freedom, the Parliament is the starting point to bring about change. Today in Lebanon, many want to start with basic needs like electricity, clean water, cleaning garbage in the street and, of course, finding a solution for the economic crisis.
Perhaps the aspect of the vote that has attracted the attention of many observers most is that while Hezbollah retained its 13 seats, its broader coalition of allies lost its majority. That defeat appeared in the loss of the Free Patriotic Movement, led by the Gibran Bassil, who has a reputation for corruption, to the Lebanese Forces (LF), led by Samir Geagea, who many Lebanese accuse of having committed crimes during the country’s civil war. Now the LF form the largest Christian bloc in Parliament, and the party is known for its opposition to Hezbollah.
The traditional centre of the Sunni bloc also retreated after former after former prime minister and party head Saad Hariri did not run for election and advocated a boycott of the vote. But the LF’s ties with Saudi Arabia have led many to believe that it will form a counterweight to Iran’s alliance with Hezbollah.
But change will not be easy in part because Hezbollah is still the most powerful group in Lebanon, with a large militia that operates independently from the national army and significant influence over many of the country’s institutions.
Perhaps the opposition and their supporters are taken in by their own enthusiasm off the back of the victory that they scored, but standing against powers that are so deeply entrenched in the system will be a monumental challenge. There is, as a result, a widespread fear of further deadlock, and the tensions this may breed among different sects. It is worth noting that some of the parliamentarians who were charged over their negligence related to the Beirut blast have been re-elected.
There is a lot on the table to address for the new parliamentarians. The opposition block is keen to enforce change, especially with banking secrecy, capital control and many services that are considered basic in other countries. They want to mend Lebanon’s ties with the world, which were broken in part by Hezbollah’s dominance.
All of this is at stake, but the old power structures have suffered a blow, but not a defeat. The rise of the independents is just one step in a long road, but certainly one in the right direction.