Hezbollah’s expected gains to complicate Lebanon’s international standing

Hezbollah’s apparent electoral gains were celebrated in Tehran.
Tuesday 08/05/2018
Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah gesture as they ride cars and hold Hezbollah flags in Marjayoun, Lebanon May 7. (Reuters)
Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah gesture as they ride cars and hold Hezbollah flags in Marjayoun, Lebanon May 7. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Unofficial results in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections point to gains by Iran-backed Hezbollah, potentially complicating relations between Beirut and its Western and Gulf backers.

Listed as a terrorist group by the United States, Hezbollah, a heavily armed Shia group, has expanded its strength and regional influence since entering the Syrian civil war in support of the Assad regime.

Hezbollah and its allies were expected to claim at least 47 seats in the 128-seat parliament, the Associated Press reported.

The Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the party of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, and Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Sunni Future Movement lost seats but are still the largest blocs among Christians and Sunnis. The FPM was expected to seat 21 members, six fewer than the previous parliament, and the Future Movement saw a sharp drop to 20 seats. Hariri’s party had 32 seats in the outgoing parliament.

Hezbollah’s apparent electoral gains were celebrated in Tehran. Tasnim News Agency, which is linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, posted a report headlined: “Lebanese election result puts an end to Hariri’s monopoly among Sunnis.”

Hezbollah’s advances were expected within government, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told state TV. “Lebanon is an independent country. Iran respects (the) vote of Lebanese people. We are ready to work with the government elected by the majority,” he said.

Lebanese state had become indistinguishable from Hezbollah

Reactions to Hezbollah’s electoral results were more muted in Tel Aviv. One Israeli minister told Reuters that the apparent win showed that the Lebanese state had become indistinguishable from Hezbollah, suggesting that Israel would feel free to strike at Lebanon’s government in any future war.

Hezbollah’s gains would also raise concerns in the United States, one of the principal backers of the Lebanese Armed Forces. “Hariri is going to be further weakened in any kind of government going forward,” Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told Reuters. “His ability to substantially tame or restrain Hezbollah… in Lebanon is going to be very limited.”

“It will lead to more criticism of US military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces” in Washington, he added.

Though weakened, Hariri could retain his role as prime minister. Under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim. The new government, as with the outgoing one, is expected to include the main parties. Talks over cabinet posts are expected to take time.

Hezbollah’s gains will increase concerns among the country’s more than 1 million Syrian refugees. Hezbollah has long lobbied for their return to a Syria it claims has been stabilised. The election in Lebanon was closely watched in Damascus, which is seeking to normalise relations with Beirut.

Also expected to see electoral gains was Hezbollah’s staunch opponent, the Christian Lebanese Forces, which was expected to almost double its number of parliamentary seats to 15.

Voting took place under an overhauled electoral system, which redrew boundaries and introduced a proportional system. Official results had been expected May 7 but there is no indication when results would be announced.

Despite the new system, voter turnout was low, suggesting wide disillusionment with an entrenched political class widely perceived to be corrupt and responsible for Lebanon’s stagnant economy and failing infrastructure. Lebanese Minister of Interior and Municipalities Nouhad Machnouk said national turnout was 49%, compared to 54% in 2009, the most recent parliamentary election. In Beirut, turnout was 32-42%.