Lebanon takes a first step to move forward from dysfunction

Those in Washington who have urged the U.S. to disengage from Lebanon because of its dysfunctional government and a citizenry incapable of demanding change may have found their arguments challenged by the results from Lebanon’s May 15 parliamentary elections. The Lebanese people, much to the surprise of many, apparently sought change by voting against the political status quo.

Hezbollah and its allies lost a parliamentary majority. The Free Patriotic Movement, a pro-Hezbollah, Christian party, was largely defeated by the Lebanese Forces political party, an anti-Hezbollah party that now becomes the largest Christian party in parliament. Sixteen independent candidates were joined by nine others who are critical of Lebanon’s political establishment. And although much more gender diversity is needed in the parliament, a record high of eight women were elected.

Obstacles to reforms certainly remain, but the voters have inspired a new momentum that can help steer the government away from corruption and toward a more responsive state. The verdict is still out, of course, on whether the new parliament will have the political courage and pragmatism to implement needed reforms. If there is a lesson from these elections that lawmakers should take to heart, it is that time has run out for “politics as usual.” The electoral results also highlight key areas to which U.S. lawmakers can look for constructive engagement.

It is important to remember that this was the first time the Lebanese people have voted since the October 2019 protests and the 2020 Port of Beirut explosion. A pre-election poll from Zogby Research Services showed record high levels of human suffering and an understandable desire for change. For example, essentially all of Lebanon reported being seriously impacted by shortages in fuel (97 percent), electricity (89 percent), and drinking water (74 percent), and the poverty rate is at an all-time high, exceeding 70 percent of the population. 

When asked about the elections, a majority of Lebanese surveyed reported a willingness to support new political parties. They listed parliament and the traditional political parties as the institutions in which they had the least amount of trust. However, one particular challenge the opposition presented to voters is that they were unable to unite in common voting districts where their political interests intersected, forcing many voters to choose between competing lists of reformists and united lists of entrenched career politicians. Effective coalition building could have produced an even larger number of reformists in parliament.

If such squabbles cannot be overcome in the new parliament, this historic vote could render itself meaningless. The biggest threat to reform in Lebanon may be political gridlock. Reformists of all stripes must build viable coalitions to implement necessary economic and financial reforms in order to receive help from the International Monetary Fund, or make crucial leadership decisions in choosing a speaker of the parliament, who must be of the Shiite religion; a prime minister, who must be of the Sunni religion; and a president of the pepublic, who must be a Maronite Catholic. These tests will require deal-making, compromise and coalition building that will test all members of parliament, especially those who campaigned on reform.

While there were reports of voting irregularities, threats against voters, and a hostile press environment, the Biden administration and Congress were firm and helpful in promoting free, fair and on-time elections in Lebanon. America’s continuing support is needed to strengthen democracy within Lebanon and protect its vital interests on the eastern Mediterranean. A strong civil society, stable economy and a free media are pivotal to these objectives. U.S. programs to support economic reform and democratic and corruption-free institutions should be implemented. U.S. lawmakers should take note that the U.S.-supported Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) were deployed throughout the country on election day to maintain relative calm.

The message the Lebanese people have conveyed is clearly one of determination. The U.S. has a partner in a reform-minded Lebanese citizenry. It must capitalize on this by increasing support for the LAF and investments in Lebanon’s democratic future. Lebanese lawmakers must also do their job; the clock is ticking for them to build coalitions, rebuild public trust and govern in a manner that moves their country forward.

Edward M. Gabriel is the former U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Morocco (1997-2001). Currently, he is the president and CEO of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a leadership organization of Americans of Lebanese descent.

Tags Corruption Economy of Lebanon Lebanese elections Lebanon

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