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CWA # 19, 9 June 2018

West Asia
The Lebanon Pawn: Will it change after elections?

  Apoorva Sudhakar

In the recent elections, a victory of the Shiite group cum political party, Hezbollah was seen partly because of the poor performance of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement party. What does this mean for the Hezbollah? What does this mean for the country? What does this mean for the Middle East? 

Department of International Studies, Stella Maris College, Chennai and NIAS Intern
 
The attention of the Middle East recently shifted to Lebanon as it held its parliamentary elections after nearly a decade. Though small in size, Lebanon is a vital player in the Middle East due to its strategic location.

In the recent elections, a victory of the Shiite group cum political party, Hezbollah was seen partly because of the poor performance of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement party. What does this mean for the Hezbollah? What does this mean for the country? What does this mean for the Middle East? 
 
How the elections work in Lebanon
The highlight about 2018 elections is the new electoral rules: a new electoral law with a proportional representation component, standardized ballot and provision for expat voting. The participation of a significant number of women candidates is new. And a broad civil society coalition opposing the traditional elites is also a distinguished fact.
 
The mainstream media reported the win of the Hezbollah. Statistics, however, show that more than the win of the Hezbollah, it was a mere under-performance of Hariri’s party. Hezbollah and its ally, Amal, together won two seats more than last time. The biggest loss was for Hariri’s Future Movement, which lost 14 seats including a seat in the capital, Beirut, a Sunni stronghold.
 
The Hezbollah’s coalition has now emerged as a powerful faction in the Parliament and hence have a stronger say in the governance of the country. 
 
The positions of President, Prime Minister and the Speaker are allotted on a sectarian basis. The President should be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker a Shia Muslim. Therefore, though in the recent elections the Future Movement lost almost a third of their seats, Saad Hariri still holds the Prime Ministerial position. 
 
The internal state of affairs 
Put aside the election hype and the reality opens up. As “historical” as it may sound, the electoral procedures were disappointing to the civilians. The voter turnout dropped to 49.2 percent from 54 percent of last elections which were held in 2009 (Daily Star). The inefficiency of the government in addressing the internal problems might have been a cause for this. The biggest problems in the country are corruption, unemployment and ineffective healthcare. 
 
The economy has been going through a turmoil since the Syrian war started in 2011. From nearly a 9 per cent growth rate to 1.3 per cent in 2015 Lebanon defines economic instability (International Institute of Finance) .The country also bears a debt to GDP rate at 150 per cent. 
To add to the crisis, nearly 1.5 million refugees from Syria and Palestine are finding shelter in Lebanon (Aljazeera). This adds to 25 percent of the total population of the country. Now the primary question is how Lebanon will take care of the refugees along with its own population. The looming threat of resource conflict is bound to intensify as the Israel-Palestine crisis and Syrian war worsen. 
 
The externalities  
The world now looks at the post-election Lebanon anxiously. Why?
The location of Lebanon serves as a middle ground between the two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. With its involvement in the Syrian civil war along with Iran and the Hamas, the Hezbollah has expanded base. It is no longer an isolated group. On the other side is the US-backed Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries along with Israel. 
 
Israel had already been in a war with Lebanon in 2006. With the recent rise in support for the Hezbollah in its neighboring country, Israel is on its alert. After the election results showed a growing Hezbollah influence in the region, Israel conducted military drills on its northern border. 
 
With recent developments in the political arena mainly the US decision to pull out of the Iran deal, there are a number of changes around the corner. One of them is the approach of regional powers towards countries which can be potential battlegrounds for proxy wars, like Lebanon and Yemen. 
 
The paradox
The paradox lies in the fact that despite having a number of domestic problems, Lebanon was successful in conducting peaceful elections. The element that even in the face of economic crisis, it holds on to those who come seeking refuge is an achievement for the country. The icing on the cake is that regardless of all the differences, be it ideological or political, Saudi Arabia is extending a line of credit of one billion USD to Lebanon. 
 
Lebanon can revive itself if public interests are satisfied and grassroots level initiatives are taken for human development. Despite all domestic and external issues, Lebanon saw an acceleration the growth rate from 1.3 per cent  in 2015 to 1.8 per cent in 2016 (World Bank). People taking into account the performance of the government, voicing out their opinions, and demanding reformations points out that the essence of democracy has not been lost and that there is still hope for not just Lebanon but other countries with a similar state of affairs. 

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