Municipal elections magnifying Lebanon’s political struggles

municipal elections 2016

Lebanon is a politically fractured country, boasting 18 officially recognized religious groups all vying for political power. These groups have long sought outside support to outcompete their rivals. As a result, Lebanon is also a country torn, where the melodramas of the Middle East play out and other countries, mainly Iran and Saudi Arabia, jockey for influence. Now that Lebanon’s municipal elections are underway, the country’s political divides are on full display, and they could widen even further as the vote unfolds.


The Lebanese government’s failure to function is, at its heart, a direct result of the wider polarization in the Middle East playing out in Lebanese politics. The country’s multiple faith-based political parties are split on two interconnected issues: Syria’s role in Lebanon, and Lebanon’s alignment with either Iran or Saudi Arabia. Consequently, Lebanese policies on its status in the Middle East are ambivalent.

The government’s failure to elect a new president is especially revealing. Ever since former President Michel Suleiman’s mandate expired in May 2014, the country’s political blocs have been at odds over who will lead. The parliament — not public popular opinion — chooses the president, requiring consensus among political parties. Political alliances with divergent views on whether Lebanon should support Iran or Saudi Arabia have prevented the country from settling on a leader.

Parties of Convenience

Lebanon’s political parties formed two major blocs during the Cedar Revolution of 2005, during which Syria and Hezbollah’s involvement in Lebanon forced the country into either pro-Iran or pro-Saudi Arabia camps. The broadly Saudi-leaning March 14 Alliance rejected the Syrian presence in Lebanon and opposed the destabilizing role that it claims Hezbollah has played in the country. This sentiment, which had been brewing for some time, solidified after the assassination of Sunni leader Rafik al-Hariri in February 2005. His son, former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, now leads the movement. In contrast, the generally Iranian-leaning March 8 Alliance is dominated by Shiite political parties Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, which are teamed up, notably, with Christian leader Michel Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement.

March 14th and March 8 alliances

The lines between the alliances had been settled until recently. In February, Saudi Arabia withdrew its military and security aid, worth $4 billion, citing the refusal of Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil to condemn Hezbollah and Iran’s activities in the Middle East. Renewed competition for influence in the country, from Iran and even Russia, ensued. Then there was the controversy surrounding the Lebanese central bank’s decision to uphold U.S. sanctions against Hezbollah, which likely upset Tehran. These developments could polarize the country between Sunni and Shiite leaders.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s Christians straddle both alliances. Although Lebanon has not held a census since 1928 — verifiable demographic changes could upend the country’s sectarian political system — Christians are estimated to constitute more than 30 percent of the population. More important, the law requires that Lebanon’s president be a Maronite Christian, as has been the case essentially since the country was founded. As a result, Sunni and Shiite leaders have aimed to build coalitions that include Christians for their demographic and political support.

But these alliances have always been marriages of convenience without much prospect for longevity. In particular, Lebanon’s Christians have increasingly engaged with one another outside their main political blocs. A notable recent example came after al-Hariri, the leader of the March 14 Alliance, flipped his endorsement for the presidency to Suleiman Frangieh Jr., a member of the rival March 8 Alliance, hoping it would lead to a compromise with Hezbollah. In response, Samir Geagea, the head of the Christian political party Lebanese Forces and the March 14 Alliance’s original choice for president, allied with Aoun, a member of the March 8 Alliance, and threw his support behind Aoun’s presidential bid.

Polarized Elections

Lebanon is holding municipal elections in this fractured context. The elections began May 8 and will be held over four consecutive Sundays, ending May 29. They are already magnifying the country’s political struggles, particularly among the political blocs, which have shown the limits of their influence at the local level. Despite Geagea and Aoun’s Christian alliance, both have had trouble making their parties cooperate locally, running against each other in the elections and butting heads in several areas. For example, in the Jounieh municipality, Aoun accused Geagea’s party of corruption. Still, to preserve the budding relationship nationally, Aoun has said Geagea was not involved in those local issues.

Also of note in the municipal elections is the March 14 Alliance’s waning influence. Though al-Hariri’s municipal list won in Beirut, the party had only a 10 percent popularity rating among the capital’s Sunni population. In fact, a grassroots political group called Beirut Madinati, whose candidates include inexperienced and relatively unknown intellectuals and artists, won 40 percent of the vote in Beirut because of widespread discontent or apathy toward the March 14 Alliance. According to Stratfor sources, as a result of al-Hariri’s poor showing, his Sunni rivals in Tripoli and Sidon are contesting his leadership. Al-Hariri’s political and financial troubles with Riyadh — especially after the withdrawal of military aid — are likely also hurting his popularity in Lebanon, where political patronage is prevalent. Sources also said the Saudis want to have multiple Sunni leaders, and al-Hariri is trying to create a loose alliance with most of them to avoid standing alone.

But based on the municipal elections results, Hezbollah’s popularity has similarly declined. Rival lists won a much greater share of votes than was expected in some municipalities in Baalbek-Hermel.

As Lebanon completes the final rounds of its municipal elections, cracks in the country’s political blocs will continue to widen, complicating the already perplexing political environment. The increasing irrelevance of the March 8 and March 14 alliances has expanded the crisis in the country’s Sunni leadership and forced Christians to band closer together. Power plays in the Middle East are making political collaboration in Lebanon equally difficult. Nevertheless, it is also possible that Christian parties working together outside of the rival blocs could initiate a new dialogue, perhaps leading Lebanon out of gridlock. Yet even if the country succeeds in finally electing a president, sectarian tensions are still far from over as Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to compete for influence in Lebanon.




2 responses to “Municipal elections magnifying Lebanon’s political struggles”

  1. 5thDrawer Avatar

    One thing Hariri lost out on Christians with in Tripoli, and undoubtably with Sunnis too, was saying that HOMES would be REBUILT after the army got rid of the worst gangs making war in and around that city, and in the years since did NOT follow through.
    Politicians spout such promises all the freaking time.
    A second thing was in allowing jobs to be whipped out from under people in favour of ‘work for any amount’ refugees – the whole country does NOT keep it’s ‘minimum-wage’ laws, let alone higher contractual ones.
    Shiia Hezzys only ‘aid’ Hezzys when it comes to the penniless Lebanese Peasant.
    It’s just as well that food thrown from a market must not be collected in garbage for a day – gives many a chance to find something edible still. (Boil it well if you can find gas for the stove…)
    AND WHY NOT VOTE for a ‘Party’ of “inexperienced and relatively unknown intellectuals and artists”??
    THEY have better brains, and know enough what they NEED, to hire real experts on problems and listen to them.
    Religion has shown NOTHING of ability to run anything, even a garbage collection.

  2. 5thDrawer Avatar

    One of the ‘favourite lines’ of ‘modern western thought’ is stating baldly: “All you have to do is …….”
    While ALSO in recent times, conveniently forgetting that someone actually NEEDS to know HOW to do it.
    Perhaps ‘Stratfor’ sometimes forgets too, that the iPhone CANNOT DO the PUMBING !!
    Iraq (recently) was trying for a ‘Government of Technocrats’, whatever THAT means to them. Shouldn’t that be BRICKLAYERS?? Because if the damn computer can’t be covered from the rain, then ‘technically speaking’, it won’t be a computer for very long at all.
    ACTUALLY, Artists and Musicians understand they can’t work in the pouring rain either. ‘Madinati’ already knows it and doesn’t need to have that small fact explained to them. Their ONLY ‘inexperience’ may be in ‘Politicing’.
    Which, as we should readily admit, doesn’t create ANYTHING good for anyone.
    The World which has somehow lost respect for ALL those people who KNOW HOW to apply themselves to A JOB using the ‘HANDS ON’ approach is simply going down the tubes. Soon there won’t even be someone around to teach a robot. OR, perhaps the ‘last experienced worker’ will be demanding a huge paycheque to show a ‘newbie’ how to clean dirt from a finger – IF he decides to even come out of a poor retirement to teach anything to the bastards who were fucking him for the last 3 decades.
    Some of us just laugh as we watch, of course, knowing our ‘end time’ could be more of a pleasure.

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