Out with the old, in with the new: Lebanon’s elections promise changing of the guard

Visibly absent from the list of parliamentary hopefuls are many prominent politicians who have held seats since the 1990s.
Sunday 25/03/2018
Electoral billboards for the upcoming 2018 May parliamentary elections in Lebanon by the largely Shia Amal movement with a tagline reading in Arabic “Your vote is a hope (Amal) for the borders.” (AFP)
Shifting foundations. Electoral billboards for the upcoming 2018 May parliamentary elections in Lebanon by the largely Shia Amal movement. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Lebanon is bracing itself for parliamentary elections on May 6. If carried out successfully, they would be the first legislative elections in the country since 2009. Visibly absent from the parliamentary hopefuls is a long list of prominent politicians who have been represented in every chamber since the 1990s.

Among those is former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, an economist and seasoned statesman who was exceptionally close to Lebanon’s assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Siniora has taken a back seat in recent years after Saad Hariri — Rafik Hariri’s son — succeeded him in 2009, preferring the less visible post of head of Hariri’s Future Movement.

Siniora is reportedly unhappy with how Hariri handled his latest crisis with Saudi Arabia, when, some allege, he was abducted last November and forced to announce his resignation from Riyadh, rather than Beirut, on a Saudi channel, rather than his own Future Television or via Lebanese state TV.

Siniora is also said to be unimpressed with how Hariri cannot seem to make up his mind vis-a-vis Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. In his resignation speech, Hariri threatened that Hezbollah’s arms would be chopped off, only to praise the group in January when speaking to the Wall Street Journal.

Another Hariri ally who will exit the Lebanese parliament is Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, formerly a main pillar of Hariri’s March 14 coalition. Jumblatt played a pivotal role in Hariri’s rise to power and in the creation of the political coalition that ejected the Syrians in April 2005.

Hariri badly needs both Siniora and Jumblatt to emerge victorious in the next parliament with a two-thirds blocking majority. Numerically that means at least 85 out of 128 MPs. Presently only two blocs can achieve that number. One is headed by Hariri and the other is jointly led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who leads the Amal Movement, and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

Hariri and his allies had 46 seats in the outgoing parliament and the rival Iran- and Syria-backed bloc had 47. Those numbers will likely change because Hariri no longer has on his side the Lebanese Phalange, headed by former President Amin Gemayel. He backed out in 2016, furious with Hariri’s backing of Michel Aoun as president, a post Gemayel wanted for himself. Gemayel has five MPs in parliament and that number is expected to increase in May.

Hariri also lacks the unwavering support of Jumblatt’s bloc, which supported him in 2009, making 85 seats out of 128 not so easy for Hariri.

His electoral allies are the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea, with whom Hariri is working to challenge Hezbollah in Baalbek-Hermel. This district will witness a big electoral battle in May, as Hariri tries to penetrate the Shia stronghold. It has six parliamentary seats: two Christian (one Maronite and one Catholic), two Sunni and two Shia seats. The number of voters in Baalbak-Hermel is: 43,000 Christians, 43,000 Sunnis and 230,000 Shias, making the Hariri plan ambitious and very difficult to achieve, since the lion’s share of Shia votes will go to candidates running with Hezbollah and Amal. The numbers in the district will make or break any upcoming parliamentary majority.

The same applies to Hezbollah and Amal, which are deprived of the backing of veteran Maronite MP Suleiman Frangieh, once a main player in their March 8 alliance. The grandson of a president and a presidential hopeful himself, Frangieh had relied on Hezbollah to put him in power in 2016 but Hezbollah went for Aoun.

Frangieh won’t be running this year, which is problematic for his allies who had relied on him within his Maronite constituency, being scion of a ranking political family who heads a prominent political party.

Hezbollah and Amal will also be deprived of the direct alliance of the Aounists, who commanded 19 seats in the outgoing parliament and put their full weight behind the March 8 alliance. It is far too difficult for them to do that again, having to stand as more neutral players because their leader is president of the republic.

Additionally, there is plenty of bad blood between Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil and Berri because of a recent political feud that will make cooperation between Amal and the Aounists difficult.

While big names part the scene in this year’s parliament, several prominent newcomers are making their debut, including three media personalities. One is George Kurdahi, a television presenter running on Aoun’s list. Another is Paula Yacoubian, another TV host running with the Hariri team. The third is Raghida Dergham, a respected journalist with the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper.

Several figures from military and security backgrounds are bracing themselves for the new chamber. One is former Brigadier-General Chamel Roukoz, the son-in-law of Aoun and commander of the Rangers Regiment. He was a candidate to lead the Lebanese Army.

Another is General Jamil al-Sayyed, the former head of Lebanese General Security who was famously accused and arrested over the Hariri assassination in 2005. He was released in 2009. A Shia officer with strong ties to Iran and Syria, Sayyed is exceptionally close to Hezbollah.

Running in Tripoli is Ashraf Rifi, the former director of Lebanese Internal Security. A former Hariri ally, he defected in recent years and is leading a political movement that poses the most serious challenge to Hariri. He, too, is close to the Saudis and backed by a rival branch of the House of Saud and is reportedly closer to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. Although he hates Hezbollah, he seems to have one thing in common with them — wanting the defeat of Hariri — although they remain at daggers drawn and aren’t remotely on the same wavelength for the next elections.

Sayyed and Rifi will greatly influence dynamics in the new chamber, increasing its massive polarisation because one is a staunch ally of the Saudis and the other of Syria and Iran.