A crack of light may be starting to show through Lebanon's political stalemate. On May 6, voters go to the polls in the country's first parliamentary elections since 2009. The balloting will put to the test the 2017 electoral reform aimed at loosening the iron grip of sectarianism that has been in place since Lebanon's independence in 1943. The elections pit the March 8 Alliance, a coalition representing Hezbollah and Iran, against the March 14 Alliance, with parties backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France and, to a lesser extent, the United States. Both sides will be looking for an advantage under the new law, and the outside powers will be looking for a chance, however slim, to alter the balance of influence in Lebanon.
Lebanon's election will be an indicator of the depth of Iran's regional influence, and it will serve as a key challenge to the Lebanese themselves, who have prized the cold peace of the past decade. The next ruling coalition will look to gain an advantage under the new electoral law and to avoid provoking outside powers fearful of Iranian influence.
A Cold Peace
Since 1989, Lebanon has been locked in a cold peace — a political stalemate among Maronite Christians, Sunnis and Shiites — under the Taif Accord, which ended the country’s 15-year civil war. But Hezbollah's buildup in Lebanon and Iran's entrenchment in Syria have steadily undermined that stalemate. In addition, growing government debt and the political paralysis that ended in 2016 opened the way last year for reform and the first elections in nine years.
The new voting law, which moves Lebanon past its winner-take-all system, features a type of proportional representation. This gives independent candidates outside the major blocs a shot at winning seats that otherwise would have been locked up by the bigger parties. It also offers outside powers, who hope they can curry influence with successful independent candidates, an opportunity to put their stamp on Lebanon or, at least, mitigate the damage to their own side.
Strategy, Maneuvers and Stakes
In one example of election maneuvering, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have lined up their support to help an independent Shiite candidate they think can peel a seat away from Hezbollah in Baalbek. Iran and Hezbollah, meanwhile, are counting on their long campaign of fighting corruption and resistance to Israel to deflect such attempts. Recent anti-Israel saber rattling by Hezbollah was meant to reinforce that reputation, even though the militant group is genuinely worried about a new war with the Israelis. Hezbollah has also raised the alarm about the potential for a national fiscal crisis, hoping to reinforce a view among voters that the coalition it is competing against, the March 14 Alliance, and its leading party, the Future Movement, are corrupt and responsible for the poor state of public services and government finances.
In the same vein as the Saudi and Emirati electioneering, Hezbollah and Iran are trying to encourage independent Sunni candidates to take seats from the March 14 Alliance, while fending off challenges within their own territories by the opposition bloc. If March 8 can win just a handful of truly independent seats and bring them into a coalition, then Hezbollah could dominate the next Lebanese government.
If March 8 Wins
The most significant potential outcome of this election is a win that produces a coalition that leans further toward the March 8 Alliance. A Hezbollah-led government will strain the consensus over the approach to Lebanon that exists among Israel, Saudi Arabia, France and the United States. That consensus has until recently favored France, as well as the U.S. strategy of steadily freezing out Hezbollah instead of directly confronting it.
Should the March 8 coalition gain more government influence, an escalated confrontation with Hezbollah becomes more likely from all concerned outside powers. France and the United States would face domestic pressure to ratchet up sanctions on Lebanon and deny grant and aid money. Other financial pledges, most recently promised at the Paris IV and Rome II aid conferences this spring, might not be fulfilled, and sanctions that until now were limited to individuals might be turned on larger parts of the Lebanese economy. Stronger sanctions could have a variety of effects, from derailing Lebanon's development of gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to stymieing security gains by the Lebanese military.
Saudi Arabia as well could bring a variety of economic and other weapons to bear. In November 2017, it tried to scuttle the government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and President Michel Aoun when it detained al-Hariri in Riyadh. Although that scheme failed, Saudi Arabia could damage Lebanon in other ways: It could expel its many Lebanese expatriates or cut off the flow of remittances or investment. However, none of these steps would likely be applied in full, in part because of the damage they could do to Saudi interests. But the mere threat of them could change Lebanese political behavior.
Certainly, whichever coalition comes out ahead in the elections will seek to maximize its advantages on the domestic front. But it also will be careful to minimize any threat to the interests of outside powers. This will limit how much either side will push for influence or control within a new government. So even though both Iran and its rivals will be watching the vote closely, however the dust settles, Lebanese of all political stripes will take care to ensure that the results do not lead to a disaster.