Polarisation and lack of majorities could lead to political deadlock in a context of severe socio-economic crisis

Political paralysis threatens new Lebanese parliament

photo_camera PHOTO/REUTERS - Lebanese parliamentary elections

The legislative elections of 15 May have meant the loss of the absolute majority of the Hezbollah-led bloc, but in exchange the Parliament has been divided, making it difficult to form a government in a country in need of a strong executive to face a severe economic, political and social crisis.

Hezbollah, a Shia political party/militia created and funded by Iran during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), has for decades been one of the most powerful actors in the country.


In the 2018 legislative elections, the 'Party of God' and its allies won 70 MPs, obtaining an absolute majority by comfortably surpassing the 65-seat threshold. Although the militia and its main ally, the Amal Movement, repeated in the last elections, winning the 27 seats reserved for Shia Muslims in the Lebanese parliament, several of its partners from other faiths have suffered notable defeats, bringing the bloc down to 61 MPs.

Sectarianism has been institutionalised within the Lebanese political system since the 1943 National Pact, whereby both parliament and key positions are divided by quotas around the country's major religions. In this way, governance in Lebanon depends on alliances between different faith groupings, and it is precisely Hezbollah's non-Shia partners that have fared the worst in the elections.

Here, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the party of President Michel Aoun, of Maronite Christian congregation and close to Hezbollah, was one of the biggest losers, dropping from 24 seats in 2018 to only 17.

These results have gone hand in hand with the rise of the Lebanese Forces, also Maronite, which with 19 seats has become the main Christian party in the country, and the great alternative to Hezbollah.

Since the election campaign, its leader, Samir Geagea, has turned the elections into a plebiscite against the arming of the Shiite militia. "All strategic decisions must return to the state, and security and military matters must be handled exclusively by the Lebanese army," Geagea told AFP in an interview. Hezbollah was the only paramilitary group to retain its arsenal after the Lebanese civil war, having become the country's main military force ahead of the state armed forces, but the Christian leader seeks to combat what he calls "a state within a state".


Geagea is committed to building an anti-Hizbullah front in the country, opposing a national unity government. To this end, the Maronite leader will try to reach agreements with other traditional parties opposed to the militia, such as the Christian Lebanese Phalanges or the Druze Walid Joumblatt, although, despite this, he would not have a clear majority either.

The other big surprise of the night was the arrival in parliament of 13 reformist MPs, who emerged in the heat of the protest movements of October 2019 against a political class dominated by the same figures for decades, who have led Lebanon into an unprecedented socio-economic crisis. "Public opinion has spoken out in favour of radical change in the country. It is time to turn the page and start a new political phase, far from the civil war and the sharing of the cake [between the traditional parties]," Marc Daou, one of the new MPs, told Lebanese media outlet L'Orient-Le Jour.

Geagea promised to work with them to form a government, claiming to agree at least on the need to create a real state, "far from corruption, clientelism, quotas and private interests".


For his part, Mohammad Raad, one of Hezbollah's main leaders, affirmed that the party is open to participating in a new government, but without wanting to rush into anything for the time being. He challenged the Lebanese Forces, stating that "if they really have a parliamentary majority, then we will wait, without haste [...] we will see what their priorities are and how they will use this majority. We will act accordingly". Earlier, Raad had charged Lebanese Forces to pay attention to his speech and behaviour. "Do not fan the flames of civil war," the Shia politician threatened. 

Despite the electoral setback, this does not seem to indicate a significant loss of Hezbollah's domestic influence. According to Francisco Javier Lion Bustillo, PhD in History from the University of Cadiz, the key factors of Hezbollah's internal power, such as the support of its social base, the maintenance of political alliances, the preservation of its military strength and Iranian support, have not been undermined. But, according to Lion Bustillo, "its alliance with the MPL could suffer if the latter feels that its excessive collaboration with Hezbollah has taken its toll and opts for further disengagement".

In the midst of a deep economic, political and social crisis, worsened by the Beirut port explosion of 2020, the new parliament will have to elect a prime minister and a government that will carry out the structural reforms demanded by the IMF and international donors. But the confrontation between the Hezbollah-led bloc and the Lebanese Forces-led bloc may provide the perfect cocktail for a parliamentary deadlock.


"The results seem to indicate that we will return to situations experienced in the past, with provisional governments waiting to reach a parliamentary majority", according to Lion Bustillo, for whom the traditional parties, in the best case scenario, "will accept the minimum reforms necessary to ensure the receipt of IMF aid, but lack the incentive to modify a political, economic and social system that has historically guaranteed their control of the country".

The first ball of the game will be the election of the speaker of parliament, who, under the Lebanese political system, must be a Shia Muslim. This post has been held since 1992 by Nabih Berry, leader of the Amal Movement and ally of Hezbollah, who has attracted the animosity of opposition parties for his closeness to the Shia militia and for representing, for many, the corruption and clientelism that has dominated Lebanese politics in recent decades. However, given that all Shia seats are in the hands of Amal and Hezbollah, it will be difficult for an alternative candidate to emerge.

In a few months, this parliament will also have to elect a new president to succeed Michel Aoun. In Lebanon, the head of state, who must be a Maronite, is elected by parliament by a qualified majority of two-thirds of the House in the first round. If no candidate succeeds, the vote would be by absolute majority.

However, given the parliamentary division and the mutual animosity between Hezbollah and Lebanese Forces, the election of a new president may prove as difficult as that of a new government. "Aoun will try to have his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil [the leader of the MPL], as his successor, but Samir Geagea also has ambitions for the post, which bodes well for a complex