Uncertainty shrouds Lebanon’s parliamentary elections

October 08, 2017
The Lebanese parliament building in downtown Beirut, in April. (Reuters)

The date for Leba­non’s parliamentary elections has again been cast into doubt, worrying civil society organisations and angering opposition figures.
After years of democratic stag­nation and the execrable delivery of public services, the sweeping revisions introduced by Lebanon’s adoption of proportional represen­tation earlier this year promised smaller parties and civil society a clear voice within Lebanon’s assembly. However, as the date for the elections again becomes uncertain, disquiet is rising along the Lebanese street.
Lebanon has had a peculiar history with its parliamentary elections. Intended for every four years, the most recent election was in June 2009. Since then, the parliament has extended its man­date three times, a procedure that had only been undertaken during the country’s protracted civil war when no ballot was carried out from 1972-92.
Until the current term, elec­tions have been regular ever since. Following that of 2009, a curious balance emerged between Leba­non’s two dominant parliamentary blocs, the March 8 and March 14 groups. Both achieved positions of power in 2005, both gained a reasonable share of the vote but neither scored a sweeping major­ity.
The legislative stalemate comes with advantages and disadvantag­es. On the one hand, neither group has amassed enough power to lead the country on any dramatic or potentially divisive political crusade. However, both have used their effective veto to stymie progress and block any significant legislative advance.
For evidence of parliamentary inertia, we only need to look to the two years the country went without a president or the fevered deal making that preceded the adoption of a new electoral law only hours before the expiration of the present parliament’s mandate. Had this not happened, Lebanon would have probably descended into constitutional chaos. The adoption of the new law paved the way for extending the legislature’s term until May 2018, allowing time for the logistical prepara­tions for elections under the new electoral law.
However, parliament Speaker Nabih Berri surprised the Leba­nese political community when he proposed shortening the current parliament’s term until December 31, 2017. It was a move few were expecting. Initial reaction came from the prime minister, who, perhaps grateful for the lifeline extended to his current cabinet by the initial extension, commented that bringing elections forward risked endangering what progress had been made so far.
Prior to the speaker’s interven­tion, Lebanon had been gripped by rumours of the elections being either postponed or cancelled. Irrespective of what founda­tion the rumours may have been based upon, the consensus on the Lebanese street was that the much-anticipated elections were under threat.
Uncertainty over Lebanon’s elections has exacerbated in­grained public distrust in a politi­cal establishment that has shown itself incapable of respecting the constitution or delivering on its own deadlines for parliamentary and presidential elections. Dete­riorating public services, an ailing economy, endemic corruption and the increasing discussion of deals that will only serve to benefit se­lect political personalities have all widened the gulf between Leba­non’s political establishment and the public it is intended to serve.
For civil society and Lebanon’s emerging political parties, the up­coming battle is critical. Under the new system of proportional repre­sentation, this is their opportunity to break into an atrophied political system dominated by eight grand parliamentary blocs, charged with the power to either pass or block any item of legislation they choose to. That not all exploit this dead­lock equally is beside the point. That all are united by a failure whose cost continues to be borne daily by the Lebanese public is.