Najib Mikati
Najib Mikati, Prime Minister of Lebanon Image Credit: Bloomberg

On 15 March 2022, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced that he won’t be running for his country’s upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for 15 May. Officially, Mikati declared that this was to enable a new generation of young politicians to enter Lebanon’s Parliament.

A closer look, however, ties his decision to lack of progress by his government, which was formed in September 2021. Back then, he promised accountability for the Beirut port explosion and slow but steady economic improvement — both of which have not been achieved.

Mikati was unable to solve any of Lebanon’s chronic problems, which include a chronic shortage of heating fuel, electricity — and, American dollars. Nor has he been able to advance talks with the IMF to secure a $9-10 billion loan for Lebanon. His Azm Movement currently enjoys a small bloc of 4 MPs.

A headless community

Mikati’s withdrawal deprives Lebanon’s Sunnis from yet another towering figure, coming just two months after ex-Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri announced that he too would not be running for Parliament. Hariri went as far as to withdraw completely from politics, citing what he called “Hezbollah tutelage” as a main reason. Other reasons include lack of funds to bankroll a nationwide campaign for him and his Future Movement.

Another prominent Sunni who won’t be joining the race is ex-Prime Minister Tammam Salam, scion of a leading Beirut family that has been active in Lebanese politics since Ottoman times. One of his relatives, Nawaf Salam (currently a judge at the International Court of Justice) said that he too won’t be running for office, although many were urging him to enter parliament, given his international fame and credibility.

The back-to-back announcements left the Sunni community in confusion, feeling vulnerable.

The Siniora Call

That prompted ex-Premier Fouad Al Siniora, a long-time friend and associate of the Hariri family, to hold a press conference on 23 February, calling on Sunnis to take part in the elections, en mass, whether as voters or candidates.

Beirut MP Fouad Makhzoumi added that the Sunni community will never be orphaned while Hariri’s elder brother, Bahaa, said that he would be carrying the mantle of their slain father Rafik Al Hariri. Although he himself won’t be running for office, Bahaa has set up an election list called Sawa Li Lubnan, planning to compete for seats in Beirut, Sidon, Akkar, and the Bekka Valley.

According to rough local estimates, 60% of Lebanese Sunnis voted for Saad Al Hariri’s Future Movement during the last elections in 2018. If they boycott these elections, then whatever votes left will go to Sunni candidates affiliated with the Hezbollah-led 8 March Movement.

Siniora urged a Sunni revival, without specifying whether he himself will join the race or suffice with supporting Sunni candidates throughout Lebanon, mainly in the capital Beirut and his native Sidon. He is currently supporting the campaign of his two allies, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Samir Gageagea of the Lebanese Forces (LF). All three are united by a desire to bring an end to the Aoun era, and challenge Hezbollah influence in Lebanon.

Unimpressive numbers

So far 745 candidates have nominated themselves for Lebanon’s 128-seat Parliament. Ninety-seven of them are women, or 13%. That itself is a setback from the last elections, where 976 candidates competed for office, 113 of whom were women. Its testament of people losing faith in the ability of elections to bring about real change, and in the entire legislative branch.

Only a handful of familiar names are running for office across the country, including anchors from Al Jadeed and MTV channels, and a handful of civil activists from the October Revolution of 2019.

Amal and Hezbollah

Two party chiefs, have formally submitted their nomination for parliament, both members of ruling oligarchy. They are Gibran Bassil of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), who is son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, and Nabih Berri of the Amal Movement, who happens to be speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament.

Berri’s list raised eyebrows, since two of his candidates are former ministers formally charged with homicide in the 2020 Beirut port explosion. They are Ali Hasan Khalil and Ghazi Zeiter, who Berri insists are innocent until proven guilty. He has moved heaven and earth to prevent them from being questioned or arrested by Judge Tarek Bitar, and has repeatedly tried hard to unseat the judge, with little luck.

Berri has teamed up with his traditional allies in Hezbollah, creating joint lists in southern Lebanon. Combined, the two Shiite groups control a parliamentary bloc of 30 MPs (17 for Amal, and 13 for Hezbollah).

No change is expected in their upcoming parliamentary representation given the popularity of the two groups within the Shiite community, and lack of opposition or any alternative. In fact, so confident of victory is Hezbollah that it refused to change any of its candidates for the 2018 elections, adding no new faces.

Gibran Basil’s fears

The same cannot be said for Gibran Basil, however, who had tried — and failed — to postpone the elections. Basil’s FPM currently holds the lion’s share of seats in Parliament, a total of 29. Chances are that this bloc will be slashed, rather significantly, due to rising anger with the Aoun Era, in which Basil stands as a major pillar due to his father-in-law’s advanced age.

During the October 2019 Revolution, much of the street anger was levied against Bassil, who was accused of nepotism. That was topped with a steady financial meltdown, a total collapse in basic services, the port explosion of August 2020, and US sanctions slapped on Basil that November.

One of those accused of criminal negligence that led to the port fiasco is ex-Prime Minister Hassan Diab, a protégé of Gibran Basil who was parachuted into the job by the FPM.

Many Lebanese have already voted with their feet, fleeing Lebanon in large numbers during the years 2019-2022. There are 225,000 expatriates registered to vote next May, 75,000 of whom are Maronite Christians from Basil’s constituency.

They probably won’t be voting for him, which puts the FPM parliamentary standing in jeopardy. If Bassil fails to keep his parliamentary majority then he will have a hard time nominating himself for presidential office, when his father-in-law’s term ends next October. A presidential nomination requires 65 votes in the Chamber of Deputies, along with support of a sitting prime minister.

Lebanon’s next president will be decided by a number of factors, which includes regional and international consensus by all the main stakeholders in Lebanon’s politics. But it also depends on who takes what in the upcoming chamber of deputies, especially among Christian voters.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.