Lebanon is changing, as its economic crisis transforms the country into something unrecognizable. Maybe paradoxically, though, Lebanon’s first national elections since the beginning of the crisis seem unlikely to make much difference at all.
On May 15, Lebanese will vote in the country’s first parliamentary elections since massive anti-government protests rocked the country in October 2019. The country has since suffered not only a crisis of political legitimacy, but also an economic collapse among the worst in modern history; and, in the capital Beirut, one of the largest nonnuclear explosions ever, apparently due to official incompetence and negligence.
Despite all that, few seem to believe, inside or outside the country, that the coming elections will yield major political change. Because of how Lebanon’s politics and electoral system are organized, the vote appears likely, instead, to mostly reproduce the country’s incumbent political leadership.
For the past several months, Lebanon’s politics have been mostly preoccupied with these elections. Once the votes are counted, though, Lebanese and outsiders who care about the country will have to grapple with what other means exist to achieve change in Lebanon, besides elections; and with how Lebanon’s ongoing economic collapse is actually changing the country’s society and politics, in dangerous ways.
Reproducing the Status Quo
Lebanon’s coming elections will provide a useful insight into the state of the country’s politics. They seem unlikely, however, to substantially change the composition of the country’s parliament, or how politics is done in Lebanon.
The vote will at least quantify the numerical strength the country’s political forces can muster. The election results should help clarify, for example, which of the many new opposition parties that have entered Lebanese politics since 2019 have an actual popular constituency. The distribution of Lebanon’s Sunni vote will also be interesting to see, following the withdrawal of former prime minister and Sunni don Saad Hariri and his Future Movement from electoral politics.
Yet few expect that the results of this vote will be hugely different from Lebanon’s last national elections in 2018—even as Lebanon itself has changed dramatically in the interim. On October 17, 2019, Lebanese took to the streets en masse to protest their political elites’ corruption and incompetence. That protest movement fostered a nationwide activist network, and a newly engaged political consciousness among Lebanese across the country. In parallel, the accumulated economic mismanagement and venality of Lebanese elites finally pushed the country into a catastrophic economic crisis. That crisis has been hugely worsened by those same political and financial elites’ resistance to the reforms on which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and foreign donors have conditioned an economic bailout. Lebanon’s dire situation has been exacerbated further by the coronavirus pandemic and the August 2020 explosion at Beirut’s port, which killed more than two hundred people and devastated the city.
Since 2019, Lebanon’s currency, the lira, has lost more than 90 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. The UN estimates that four-fifths of Lebanese are now living in poverty, as well as almost all of Lebanon’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese are believed to have left the country.
With all that in mind, it seems almost impossible to imagine Lebanon voting for more of the same—and yet that appears to be the likeliest outcome. Newer opposition groups that identify with the October 17 protest movement are divided; with multiple electoral lists for “change” candidates in almost every district, they seem likely to split and cannibalize the country’s anti-establishment vote. Establishment forces, meanwhile, remain powerful. They have the material resources they need to dispense patronage and mobilize voters; and those voters, amid Lebanon’s economic collapse, are likely even more dependent on politicians’ clientelist largesse to survive. What’s more, Lebanon’s traditional parties can also bring symbolic resources to bear. They still have loyal supporters and partisans, and they each have a ready narrative about why someone else is to blame for the country’s collapse, and why their respective sectarian constituency is encircled and threatened.
It seems almost impossible to imagine Lebanon voting for more of the same—and yet that appears to be the likeliest outcome.
In addition to the actual vote tally, the Lebanese political system also involves a number of intervening steps between the voting booth and Lebanese government decision-making that make it hard to see how any individual citizen’s vote actually translates to changed policy. Elections are being held under a convoluted proportional system of voting that can yield perverse, unrepresentative outcomes. And this parliamentary vote will not determine Lebanon’s next government; rather, the government’s makeup will be decided by political factions’ opaque backroom negotiations and political horse-trading. “The basis of Lebanese politics is not elections,” as one party official put it to me bluntly. The likely result is another consensual unity government that includes almost all major factions, perpetuating the country’s misgovernment and dysfunction.
Even if the results of Lebanon’s latest vote proved to be hugely different from previous elections, these features of the Lebanese system would likely confound attempts at change. Iraq actually saw a substantial shift in the results of its 2021 parliamentary elections, but, thanks to the checks and counterbalances built into its similarly consensual political system, that does not seem to have produced actual political change.
Much of the drama and conjecture in the lead-up to elections has centered on whether they would happen at all. This speculation is not without basis; Lebanon’s incumbent political leaders repeatedly postponed the country’s last elections, which were originally scheduled for 2013 and eventually held in 2018. Foreign donors have regularly stressed the importance of holding elections on time. Yet they seem not to expect that elections will bring dramatic political change; rather, they mainly seem motivated to avoid a postponement that would be particularly egregious, considering Lebanon’s 2019 protests. These countries need a Lebanese government with which they can negotiate that is at least minimally legitimate.
None of these obstacles to change are a real surprise, of course, including to Lebanese opposition groups now competing in elections—members of those groups laid them out for me last year. These political insurgents have reasons for contesting elections regardless, which include vying for a disruptive opposition bloc in parliament or capturing a large enough share of the national vote to prove their relevance to local and foreign interlocutors.
Still, Lebanese could be forgiven some pessimism about elections, and what they might realistically accomplish.
A Political Tangent
These elections relate only tangentially to what is—in my view, at least—the most important challenge currently facing Lebanon: national economic rescue, and preventing the country’s total collapse. On this issue specifically, it’s not obvious that the outcome of these elections really matters.
Lebanon’s electoral process, certainly, is an obstacle to advancing the reforms that the IMF and foreign donors have demanded. Lebanese politicians are presumably reluctant to pass controversial legislation immediately before elections. And after elections, Lebanon’s politics will likely be consumed with government formation, during which the country’s present government will become a caretaker administration with limited authorities. The indirect election of a new president this fall will also draw the focus of Lebanon’s political class.
But the actual results of that process—the partisan makeup of Lebanon’s next parliament and government—have little apparent bearing on prospects for an IMF deal and an international economic bailout. There is no appreciable difference between Lebanon’s main establishment political coalitions, as such, on IMF talks. Hezbollah and its allies are not more anti-IMF than their rivals; if the balance in Lebanon’s next parliament tilts slightly more in their favor, as some expect, that doesn’t necessarily make progress toward an IMF deal more or less likely.
Donor countries’ key Lebanese interlocutors on economic reform will not be determined by elections. Current prime minister Najib Mikati was named as part of an intra-elite compromise; his successor likely will be, as well, if Mikati does not himself return to head another government. Lebanon’s next finance minister will presumably be a member of Shia party and Hezbollah ally the Amal Movement, or an Amal-backed independent. Lebanon’s central bank governor, meanwhile, has been in office for decades, during which the bank has functioned unaccountably and effectively autonomously. He may eventually be forced out by mounting investigations into alleged malfeasance and by the defection of key political backers, but not by elections.
Lebanon’s economic collapse is the main driver of change in the country.
National economic rescue does not depend on parties carrying the banner of the October 17 protest movement taking power, which everyone agrees is currently unlikely. Despite foreign donors’ rhetorical emphasis on the importance of reform and change, in practice they have dealt with Mikati’s government on IMF-demanded reform measures, and with deputy prime minister Saadeh al-Shami in particular. They will deal similarly with Lebanon’s next government, so long as it includes comparably serious, competent interlocutors.
The type of political change to which October 17 forces aspire, meanwhile, is bigger than any “prior actions” required for an IMF deal. Their struggle with Lebanon’s status quo parties over the shape of the country’s politics is not the same as the intra-Lebanese political fight over reforms sought by the IMF and donor countries. These axes of political competition overlap in part, but they are distinct.
Change, of a Sort
What I think will actually determine the course of events in Lebanon, though, is the continuing collapse of the country’s economy.
For the last several months, Lebanon has felt depressed, but basically stable. I believe that has largely been a function of the central bank’s intervention to support the lira, in a seeming attempt to keep the country calm before this month’s elections. But that central bank intervention is costly and unsustainable; eventually it will end, and the lira exchange rate will spiral. That’s when I think things will feel out of control again.
I believe that Lebanon’s ongoing economic collapse is the main driver of change in the country, and that other political, social, and security effects mostly follow from that economic crisis. That crisis currently seems likely to continue unabated, and to remake the country’s society and politics as it goes.
This is the change now coming to Lebanon, as economic collapse exacerbates scarcity and reorders the country’s social and material relations. It is a kind of change that will likely make things in Lebanon scarier and worse.
Reform-minded Lebanese and outsiders concerned with Lebanon will have to figure out how to orient themselves and direct their own efforts relative to this economics-driven change—either to influence its trajectory, or to effect other sorts of positive change on its margins. And they will need to reckon with how else to achieve change, if elections are not viable. Some in Lebanon’s opposition have already thought about the post-election future, reasoning that electoral organizing and outreach can provide a basis for continuing activism after the vote, whatever its outcome.
Lebanon’s elections will be over soon enough. Once they are, everyone invested in Lebanon will have to think critically and creatively about next steps, and about what sort of political initiatives might mean something.
header photo: A woman walks her dog down an unlit street past the headquarters building of Electricité du Liban. The ailing state electricity provider is struggling to guarantee electricity to polling stations during the country’s election day on May 15. Source: Marwan Tahtah/Getty images.