The following is the first in a series of articles offering context on the 2018 Lebanese elections, due to be held on May 6, 2018. The articles are prepared by alternative media platform Megaphone and edited for Global Voices by Middle East and North Africa editor Joey Ayoub and author Elias Abou Jaoudeh.
The last few years in Lebanon have seen some potentially paradigm-shifting developments in the country’s political arena.
The two coalitions that have dominated the landscape for more than a decade, known as March 14 and March 8, have suffered internal chaos and a number of parties that are secular or non-aligned have emerged, challenging a system based on religious and ethnic quotas.
In addition, the parliament finally ratified a long-discussed electoral law, doing away with the previous “winner-takes-all” set-up in favor of proportional representation, but within the context of sectarianism where each sect is assigned a number of seats in parliament and positions in government.
With elections approaching in May 2018, many in Lebanon are now wondering whether Lebanese politics is on the brink of something new or whether the situation will, despite everything, largely remain unchanged.
To understand the current state of Lebanese politics, you first have to understand why Michel Aoun’s election as president in 2016 could have marked the beginning of a new era in Lebanese politics.
Ultimately, it appeared to be the end of the political binary between the March 8 and March 14 alliances that has gripped the country since 2005, but first…
What led to these alliances?
On February 14, 2005, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, along with twenty-one other victims, was assassinated in an explosion. This event triggered large-scale popular protests referred to as the Independence Intifada or Cedar Revolution, which led to the resignation of the then-cabinet and the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Syrian troops and security forces from the country, present in Lebanon since the end of the country's civil war in 1990.
Consequently, the political scene was divided into the pro-Syrian regime March 8 Alliance and the anti-Syrian regime March 14 Alliance, each named for when their large demonstrations took place in 2005. The characterization of ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ here refers to their positions on the presence of Syrian troops on Lebanese territory since 1990.
Prior to the 2005 parliamentary elections, Michel Aoun returned from exile in France, where he fled the Syrian regime in 1990 following an unsuccessful mutiny, and his party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), won most of the country’s Christian votes.
However, it was the March 14 Alliance, led by Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri's son, that received the overall parliamentary majority.
Things immediately got more complicated as Aoun's FPM signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah only nine months after the elections, marking the party’s first step towards joining the March 8 Alliance.
By the end of 2005, the two camps were more clearly defined. The March 14 Alliance is dominated by the Sunni “Future Movement” and the Christian “Lebanese Forces” and “Kataeb”, while the March 8 Alliance is dominated by the Shia “Hezbollah” and “Amal”, and the Christian FPM. A number of smaller parties from all sects are part of each alliance as well.
Occupying its own spectrum but mostly aligned with the March 14 Alliance, the largest Druze party, the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), took part in the anti-Syrian regime demonstrations. It formally left March 14 in 2009.
Following the 2006 July War between Hezbollah and Israel, the divisions between the two opposing sides increased.
- Lahoud, who had been president since 1998, was seen as too close to the Assad regime, an issue which became particularly important following Rafik Hariri's assassination, as Hariri had become increasingly vocal in his opposition to the regime during his last years. The Syrian regime pushed, succesfully, for a three-year renewal of Lahoud's six-year term, causing further outrage. This was made even more potent after a series of assassinations of high-profile, anti-Syrian regime politicians and journalists, mostly through car bombs.
- The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is an international court which was established following Hariri's assassination. Based in the Netherlands, with a field office in Beirut, it was officially established in 2009, but soon became controversial within Lebanese politics. Its international nature brought with it a number of conspiracy theories, deployed politically to either support or oppose it, and semi-official indications of existing Lebanese parties’ involvement in Hariri's assassination were met with fierce resistance.
- The 1989 Taef Agreement, which formally ended the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, stipulated, among other things, that armed militias return their weapons to the state. An exception was made for Hezbollah because of its role in resisting the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon, which lasted from 1982 to 2000; 18 years later, Hezbollah is still armed. Those who support this status quo argue that the national army cannot resist Israel on its own — that only Hezbollah has the discipline and capacity for it — often citing the 2006 war as evidence. Those who oppose this argument believe that Hezbollah should no longer be armed, and that this has left the Syrian regime and Iran — Hezbollah's two main supporters — with too much influence over Lebanese politics.
These political disputes all took place within the tense context of bombings, assassinations, and official sit-ins. The situation was further exacerbated when, in 2008, the March 14-led government dismantled Hizbollah’s communications network following an official consideration of its illegality.
By May 7, 2008, confrontations erupted in Beirut and Mount Lebanon after Hezbollah and its allies responded with armed attacks on the offices of Future Movement and the PSP. Nearly 100 people, including civilians, were killed between May 7 and May 14.
These intense clashes only came to an end with the signing of the Doha Agreement on May 21, 2008, which resulted in another “national unity government” and the election of former Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, Michel Suleiman, as president.
In the 2009 elections, March 14 again won the parliamentary majority, and Amal's Nabih Berri was appointed as the speaker of parliament, a position he has held since 1992. After those elections, Saad Hariri was made prime minister on November 9, 2009, forming yet another “national unity government”, but by 2011, it had already broken down.
On May 31, 2013, most political forces agreed to extend the parliament's mandate under the pretext of security conditions and again in 2014, after the failure of an agreement on a new electoral law.
As a result, there have been no parliamentary elections in Lebanon since 2009. Megaphone provided a more detailed breakdown (turn on English captions) on post-2005 Lebanese politics:
Civil society groups grow more confident
By 2015, there was growing dissatisfaction with the situation, manifested by the abysmal waste crisis engulfing Beirut and parts of Mount Lebanon. Public anger pushed the ruling political class closer, and solidified their approach to suppress civil society-led movements.
In the summer of 2015, the popular “You Stink” protest movement gained momentum, calling for immediate elections, sustainable waste disposal solutions and the resignation of ministers responsible for the waste crisis. This momentum would be transformed into the 2016 Beirut municipal elections, which saw the rise of the anti-sectarian, independent “Beirut Madinati” campaign, but other collectives were also formed, some of which are now focusing on the upcoming elections.
This threatened both the March 14 and March 8 factions and so, on January 16, 2016, March 14's Samir Geagea endorsed his historical opponent, March 8's Michel Aoun, for the presidency. The two alliances formed a unified coalition against Beirut Madinati to ensure an election win, and the move paid off. Beirut Madinati’s loss was partly made possible by the “winner-takes-all” system, whereby parties with the majority of votes get all the seats. This was changed in the summer of 2017, but it was too late for Beirut Madinati.
On June 16, 2017, the parliament finally ratified the long-discussed electoral law, based on the system of proportional representation. This video by Megaphone (turn on English captions) explained the new electoral system:
While many are now wondering whether the non-aligned, secular parties have a chance in the upcoming Lebanese elections, this brief and simplified historiography illustrates that nothing can be certain when it comes to the March 14 and March 8 coalitions — especially their ability to shift alliances to stay in power.