An alarming impasse

Lebanon — facing the ‘world’s worst’ economic crisis — badly needs a consensus over government formation amid fragmented election results to acquire a stable footing

An alarming impasse

Lebanese vent their anger against the powerful Iran-backed heavily armed group Hezbollah and its allies by depriving them of a parliamentary majority in the general election held on Sunday in which about a dozen reform-minded new independent candidates won.

The election was the first opportunity for voters to judge the performance of their leaders since the onset of a grave financial crisis that completely devalued the country's currency and sent the economy spiraling.

It was also the first vote since a huge explosion at the port of Beirut in August 2020, killing more than 200 people and damaging a large area of the capital city, compounding the problem the country is facing. The explosion was widely attributed to mismanagement and corruption. Coronavirus further aggravated the situation.

After the Beirut port blast, the country was without a government for more than a year. For a country desperate for international financial support with institutions reluctant understandably to provide huge cash to a nation that does not have a functioning administration.

The country witnessed huge demonstrations in 2019 reflecting people's anger at a political class seen as corrupt and inefficient. Since then Lebanon has plunged into an economic crisis that the World Bank has described as one of the worst since the Industrial Revolution.

The local currency lost more than 90 per cent of its value, reaching 30,000 pounds to the US dollar this week. The economic decline has pushed nearly three-quarters of the country's population of 68.3 lakh (2020) under the poverty line and about 30 per cent have been deprived of their jobs.

Politically the country has become isolated and ostracized both regionally and internationally as it has defaulted on implementing UN Security Council resolutions and tolerated terrorist activities and drug trafficking.

Contesting the election for the 128-member parliament were established political parties and longtime operatives whom many Lebanese accused of ruining the country and several new figures who promised change.

People discarded a few from the old order but fell far short of starting a sweeping overhaul of who will exercise power.

Hezbollah, the Shi'ite Muslim movement and its allies supporting its possession of arms won around 62, a reversal of the 2018 results when they got a majority of 71 seats.

Although Hezbollah kept 13 seats held by its members in the outgoing parliament, some of its allied political parties lost seats, bringing down the coalition below the 65-seat threshold it must meet to ensure a majority.

Hezbollah's biggest coalition ally — the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian bloc — did not record as many wins as in 2018. It is a blow to Aoun, 88, just months before his term expires in October.

Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement is headed by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who has been under US sanctions for some time due to corruption and his support of Hezbollah, a designated terrorist organization by the US. Bassil has denied the accusation.

Aoun has been preparing the ground for his son-in-law to succeed him. For this they joined hands with Hezbollah and other pro-Iran deputies to form a bloc to serve their common interests, blocking necessary reforms demanded by the Lebanese people and the international community.

The militant group has won support from its base in Lebanon as an anti-Israel military force whose fighters have intervened in conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

In addition to its armed men that project power on Lebanon's streets, Hezbollah has ministers and members of parliament who wield political power by forming coalitions with other parties.

The loss of the majority of Hezbollah and its allies will not affect the status of the group's weapons. Its arms are beyond the control of the state. It means that no parliament can take them away or affect how they are used.

Hezbollah opponents including Saudi-aligned Lebanese Forces (LF)- a Christian faction- gained ground winning the largest bloc with 21 seats, up from 15 in 2018 while Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) kept 18 seats.

The LF is headed by Samir Geagea, a former warlord from Lebanon's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

While the 2018 election brought Lebanon closer to Tehran, the current outcome could open the way for Saudi Arabia to reassert influence in a country that has long been an arena for its regional rivalry with Iran.

A record eight women, nearly half of them newcomers, have registered victory. About a dozen independent candidates, many of whom emerged from a protest movement that began in the fall of 2019 calling for the ouster of the political class, won seats, also a record.

The result has fragmented the parliament with no group having a majority, raising the prospect of political paralysis and tensions that could delay the formation of the government and reforms needed to steer the country out of its devastating economic crisis. The process of legislation for the welfare of the people has also become difficult.

Lebanon's complex parliamentary system is rigid and hard to change. It was designed that way to bring stability to the country after the civil war. It divides power along sectarian lines, and everyone is guaranteed a slice of the political cake.

However, with a reduced majority Hezbollah, although hugely influential even in the new parliament, will have to negotiate and make compromises possibly far more than they are used to.

Also, it will be interesting to watch Lebanon's north, the Sunni Muslim heartlands. Their figurehead former prime minister Saad Hariri kept himself away from the election and urged members of his Future Movement not to field candidates and his supporters not to vote.

In this political vacuum, the LF moved in offering an alliance with the Sunni bloc. This powerful new coalition might decide to send a message. Sunni dominated Gulf countries have long been pushing for Hezbollah's military wing to disarm.

Immediately the new parliament has the daunting task of appointing a new prime minister and cabinet to work toward an aid agreement with the IMF and try to steer the country out of an economic crisis that the World Bank described as one of the world's worst in the last century and a half, besides ending the country's isolation.

Parliament's next task will be preparing for the selection of the next president. Although Lebanon has a presidential system, the president is not elected directly. Instead, the parliament sits as an electoral college to choose the new president.

It is important and in the interest of the country that the newly elected member quickly agrees on the makeup of a new government that can negotiate a rescue package with the IMF and draft new laws to help spark an economic recovery.

The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served as the West Asia correspondent for the same. Views expressed are personal

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