Elections in Lebanon and Iraq will bring no fundamental changes

Whether in Lebanon or in Iraq, elections will not be the antidote to sectarian and ethnic divisions.
Sunday 04/02/2018
A 2016 file picture shows a Lebanese woman standing inside a ballot booth before casting her vote at a polling station during the municipal elections in Beirut. (AP)
A promise and a risk. A 2016 file picture shows a Lebanese woman casting her vote during municipal elections in Beirut. (AP)

2018 is going to be an election year par excellence in the Arab region. Voters in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon and Iraq will cast ballots in either presidential, parliamentary or municipal elections.

However, what looks on the surface like signs of political vitality in the region cannot hide the fact that the results of some of these exercises in democracy have already been decided or stained with shortcomings.

On May 6 and 12, general elections will be contested in Lebanon and Iraq, respectively. They will serve as a chance to monitor political change in both countries and see how representative they are of the political reality in the Middle East.

Some expect — and others fear — these elections will consecrate Iran’s influence in those countries. In reality, it is not realistic to reduce the elections’ outcomes to a single external factor, no matter how important it is, for this factor remains contingent on conflicting strategies and expected changes in the region.

In Lebanon, solutions to crises or confrontations are often couched in a no-winner-or-loser approach. This is why Lebanon’s quota system has survived since the 1940s. Such a system cannot survive in Iraq.

After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Iraqi society was split amid unproductive national identity debates and the rise of political violence and terrorism. Such debates also took place in Lebanon, especially in 1975 and 1976 during the civil war, marking the beginning of sectarian strife in Lebanese society and the rise of competing regional and international agendas in the country.

As the May elections in Lebanon and Iraq approach, mixing sterile identity debates and political systems still represents a threat. The negative aspects of the Lebanese and Iraqi experiences are being focused on and borrowed.

The Iraqis chose to borrow from the Lebanese experience the vile sectarian-based quota system of power sharing rather than emulate the Lebanese model of cultural and political plurality. There are similarities between Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces in their usurping the state’s privilege of deciding matters of war and peace. From 2003-18, both experiences were characterised by the following:

• Political, religious and regional splits on top of a weakening unified national identity;

• The absence of a mechanism for absorbing crises as well as the disappearance from the public scene of national figures or nationalist parties in addition to the atrophy in the roles of civil society and the national elite;

• The influence of the geopolitical environment and prevailing regional conflicts with clear signs of interactions between internal and external agents.

Fundamental changes in the political scenes in Lebanon and Iraq due to the elections are not expected for the simple reason that the countries’ sectarian and diverse natures are not conducive to changes.

Any attempt to place either country in the orbit of one regional axis or the other or to wipe out the Arab dimension in the national identity would lead to uncontrollable dangers. Similarly, in the event that Hezbollah and its allies obtain a parliamentary majority in Lebanon while the Sunnis and Kurds are sidelined in Iraq, the balance of power in both countries will tear apart. That would result in dire consequences for the region.

Election results in Lebanon are difficult to foresee because of the new election law’s dark formula. In 2017, parliamentary elections were postponed, more over security concerns due to the spillover from the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, than the political elites’ wish to stay in power.

In 2018, however, regional conditions remain confused and there is no escaping the demands of the internal power-sharing agreements of October 2016. So the elections will take place despite the political shenanigans of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni; President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian; and parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shia.

In Iraq and following the defeat of ISIS and the Kurdish independence referendum, the political situation is evolving towards the centralisation of power into the hands of one faction, namely the Shia camp. Postponing elections is no longer an option, given the demands of Shia parties. Former ISIS bastions in Mosul and Anbar were deliberately left in ruin and Kurdish demands in Kirkuk were deliberately ignored.

Despite a seemingly permanent US military presence in Iraq, the Americans do not seem to have influence on the political scene. Iran is actively interfering through its Iraqi proxies in restructuring this scene. Major-General Qassem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s al-Quds Force, is ever present in the background.

In the elections in Iraq, the Sunni camp seems happy with playing a secondary role while the Kurdish camp stands to lose any advantages it has had since 2003. The latter will become an addendum to the winning camp.

Such an obvious unfair distribution of power will deepen the sectarian cleavages of Iraqi society and encourage the re-emergence of extremism.

Whether in Lebanon or in Iraq, elections will not be the antidote to sectarian and ethnic divisions, for the fate of society in both countries is not contingent on ballot results. Regional conditions have a greater effect and history teaches us to expect the unexpected.