Last week, Lebanon’s government approved $18 million to hold nationwide parliamentary elections on 15 May 2022. It was only a fraction of the budget allocated for the last elections of 2018, which cost $54 million.
Due to the economic collapse and steady financial meltdown, the state has very little money left at its disposal, meaning that independent candidates and political parties will have to bankroll their own campaigns, expecting little to nothing from Lebanese officialdom.
This of course is music to the ears of wealth parties, like Hezbollah, Amal, and Bahaa Al Hariri, the brother of ex-Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri who is debuting in Lebanese politics next May through his election alliance Sawa Li Lubnan.
Last January, Saad Al Hariri announced that he was not running for parliament, nor were any members of his Future Movement. He cited Iranian tutelage as a main reason for his withdrawal, but its an open secret in Beirut that he lacks the funds needed to bankroll a nationwide campaign for him and his supporters, having squandered his share of the Hariri family fortune since 2005. He said in publicly in a televised interview last summer: “I used to be a billionaire but no longer am.”
The same cannot be said for his elder brother Bahaa, however, who according to Forbes, was worth $2 billion in 2021. He is running on an anti-Hezbollah ticket, campaigning active in the streets of Beirut with billboards and door-to-door campaigns (including the delivery of heating fuel to families in need).
Bahaa himself remains physically absent, speaking to voters through a screen. He has not lived in Lebanon and remains alien to grass roots voters, who identify strongly, however, with his family name and iconography of his father, the late Rafik Al Hariri.
Bahaa has delegated his special envoy, Safi Kalo (a childhood friend from Sidon) to meet with potential voters and defectors from his brother’s party, or former employees or staffers who were dismissed without being paid by Saad Al Hariri.
Kalo is Bahaa’s main candidate for the upcoming elections, contesting a parliamentary seat in Beirut. This month, he visited the Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Raii, and called for implementing UN resolutions with regard to Hezbollah arms.
Under Hariri father and son, the Future Movement had traditionally been represented in 10 out of 15 districts, including Beirut, Akkar, Tripoli, the Western Bekka, the Northern Bekka, Zahle, Chouf-Aley, Sidon-Jezzin, and Hasbayya. In the Bekka valley, there were places like Rashaya were it won an impressive 9,000 votes during the last elections, despite the area being traditionally close to Hezbollah.
The Hariris have no influence or representation in traditional Christian areas like Byblos, Keserwan, Metn, and Baabda, which continue to be contested between Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Samir Gagegea’s Lebanese Forces. Bahaa has also no hope in any of these districts, for lack of alliance, to date, with any Christian figure. Instead, he is focusing on three districts only: Beirut, Akkar, and South Lebanon.
In Beirut, Hariri faces little competition, since none of the city’s big names will be running for office. In light of Hariri’s withdrawal, neither ex-Prime Minister Fouad Al Siniora nor ex-Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk will be running for parliament. Both are ranking members of the Future Movement. Nor will Tammam Salam, the independent former prime minister (2014-2016) who hails from one of Lebanon’s most prominent political families.
That leaves the capital with two serious competitors, being Bahaa and current MP Fouad Makhzoumi, a self-made tycoon who is also campaigning on an anti-Hezbollah ticket. On the day of Saad’s withdrawal from politics, Makhzoumi came out with a statement, saying that Hezbollah weapons were a threat to Lebanese security, calling for its disarmament.
Akkar is another Sunni stronghold, once firmly behind Saad Al Hariri. Bahaa hopes to penetrate the district, which has a 75% Sunni majority, and earlier this year, opened an office for Sawa Li Lubnan. That would be easier said than done, given the strong influence of the Sunni group, Al Ahbash, which is pro-Hezbollah, and powerful political families like the Maaraabis and Baarinis.
They are divided among the country’s fault-lines, either with Hezbollah or with Saad Al Hariri, making it painfully difficult — but no impossible — for Bahaa to establish a threshold. He is eying the Maronite seat of Akkar, held by MP Hadi Hbeish, who had relied on Sunni votes to keep his seat in Parliament.
This is the traditional electoral district of Hezbollah and Amal, and no breakthrough is expected in the Shiite seats currently controlled by the Shiite alliance. The opposition in the south is composed mostly of civil rights activists from the Nabd al-Junoob Group and the October 2019 Revolution, but they are political lightweights with no money (although Hezbollah accuses them of being funded by the US and French embassies).
This is where Bahaa can make a difference, thanks to his financial clout. At best, however, he can win one of the non-Shiite seats in southern Lebanon, which usually goes to members of the Druze and Greek Orthodox communities.
At best, that leaves Bahaa with a minimum of one, a maximum of three seats in the upcoming Chamber. That’s not enough to influence policy in Lebanon, since a majority requires 65 votes in the Chamber of Deputies. It might be enough to gain a cabinet seat, however, since according to norm established under Michel Aoun since 2016, parliamentary blocs are entitled to one seat in government for every four that they control in parliament.
Unless he allies himself with the major political parties, however, Bahaa will find it difficult to achieve that as well, since neither his brother would allow it, nor would Hezbollah and by extension, the Aounists as well.