Continuity and change

The recent parliamentary elections held in Lebanon in May-June 2005 came at a time of drastic change in postwar Lebanese polit! ics. It was the first parliamentary election held after the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and it followed upon the international community’s renewed interest in Lebanese politics embodied in the passing of UNSCR 1559 on September 2, 2004.

The elections were also the culmination of events that marked Lebanese politics following the prolongation of President Emile Lahoud’s term for three years in violation of 1559. The status quo that had prevailed in Lebanese politics since the end of the war in 1990 was shattered by the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005, followed by UNSCR 1595, which established an International Independent Investigation Commission concerning Hariri’s assassination, and by the Independence Uprising that brought together over a million Lebanese from all communities to demand the withdrawal of Syria’s military and intelligence forces from Lebanon.

Notwithstanding these momentous developments, the electoral law that governed the 2005 elections remained unchanged. It was the same electoral law adopted in the 2000 elections, and differed little from the electoral laws of the two previous elections in 1992 and 1996, both dictated by Syria. These laws, which created large constituencies and involved extensive gerrymandering, were designed to influence the outcome of elections; they targeted political groups and communities, notably the Christian communities.

espite repeated calls by several politicians to adopt an electoral law that would allow better representation and greater competition, no change in the 2000 electoral law was possible. The international community’s insistence on holding elections according to schedule allowed no time for any serious revision of the law, and provided an excuse for supporters of the 2000 law to block a proposal presented by several deputies for an electoral law based on medium size districts.

The 2005 elections witnessed relatively little intervention by government authorities; Damascus, too, had no hand in the making and unmaking of electoral lists and alliances, as was the practice before. The elections were marked by two contradictory patterns. One, competition, took place in Mount Lebanon and North Lebanon. There, electoral lists engaged in fierce competition between two broad alliances: lists backed by General Michel Aoun, who returned to Lebanon in early May 2005 after 15 years of exile imposed by the Syrian-controlled Lebanese government, faced lists backed by Saad Hariri, the son of the late premier, who succeeded his father as leader of the Sunni community, in alliance with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Christian politicians and parties formerly associated with the Qornet Chehwan Gathering.

Another pattern of elections took place in South Lebanon and Beirut, where the outcome was largely predetermined. In Beirut, which scored the lowest participation rate at about 25 percent, eight candidates out of 19 won uncontested, and deputies on Hariri’s list won by wide margins. Similarly, in South Lebanon, six candidates out of 23 won uncontested, while the alliance in such a large constituency between the two major Shi’ite parties, Amal and Hizballah, monopolized Shi’ite representation and made it almost impossible for a third Shi’ite force to emerge as a serious competitor. In North Lebanon, the resort to sectarian slogans by Sunni religious figures in support of the Hariri list was an unprecedented development in Lebanese electoral politics. The elections were also marred by the widespread and uncontrolled use of money.

More than any other parliament in pre- and postwar Lebanon, the 2005 parliament is made up of large parliamentary coalitions headed by leaders who have near total monopolies over the representation of their respective communities: Hariri’s coalition includes 21 out of 27 Sunni deputies, Amal and Hizballah’s coalition includes 24 out of 27 Shi’ite deputies, and seven out of eight Druze deputies are in Jumblatt’s coalition. The most diversified group of deputies in terms of political allegiances and alliances is Christian, though General Aoun’s coalition includes the largest number of Christian deputies (18 out 64).

While the 2005 elections brought a large number of newcomers to parliament, particularly among groups that were targeted or banned by the Syrian-controlled Lebanese government, the political process is still heavily constrained by politicians and parties that have close ties with Syria and harbor agendas that go beyond Lebanon, notably Hizballah. In addition to Syria, Hizbollah is backed by Iran and has the support of Amal and a number of other Lebanese politicians.

Lebanon is currently in a transition period after nearly 30 years of Syrian hegemony, and it will take time for the Lebanese government to exercise sovereignty fully now that it has regained it. The duration of the transition period will depend on several developments, some of which are beyond Lebanon’s control. In the short run, the outcome of the international investigation of Hariri’s assassination will have a bearing on Lebanese politics, perhaps on Syria and, by extension, on Syrian-Lebanese relations. Moreover, the full implementation of UNSCR 1559 concerning the disarming of Hizballah and of armed Palestinian groups is the greatest challenge facing Lebanon in its dealings with the international community. In the long run, Syrian-Lebanese relations will constitute the major source of tension facing Lebanon both internally and in its external relations.

The recent elections would have had a greater impact on the political process had the electoral law been different, for the Syrian-backed "old guard" with its multiple regional agendas, ranging from Iran to the Arab-Israel conflict, retains significant influence. The elections have restructured political alliances but did not usher in a new era of change. It will take time for Lebanon to find a new equilibrium, one that disengages Lebanon from regional turmoil.