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A Lebanese parliamentary elections campaign billboard for candidate Melhem Khalaf (left) hangs on a building next to one of former PM Saad Hariri, in Beirut. Hariri’s January 2022 decision to boycott the upcoming elections has shifted focus back to Lebanon’s Sunnis, away from Maronite Christians and their politics. Image Credit: AFP

Damascus: On May 15, Lebanese will go to the polls to elect a new parliament, one week before the current chamber’s mandate expires. The upcoming elections were supposed to be a major battle for Lebanese Christians, fought between the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Gibran Bassil, the Marada Movement of Suleiman Frangieh, and the Lebanese Forces (LF) of Samir Geagea.

Whoever gets the lion’s share of seats would get to name Lebanon’s next president, when Michel Aoun’s term expires next October. Christians get 64 out of 128 seats in parliament, a share that is equally shared by Lebanese Muslims.

Anything outside that battle was seen as routine and politically insignificant, since both Sunnis and Shiites seemed confident that they would keep their parliamentary blocs, anchored with Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and the twin Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah. In the 2018-2022 Chamber of Deputies, Hariri had a bloc of 20 MPs, whereas Amal had 17 and Hezbollah, 12.

Hariri’s January 2022 decision to boycott the upcoming elections has shifted focus back to Lebanon’s Sunnis, away from Maronite Christians and their politics. A handful of Sunni figure are running in next week’s elections, all trying and to fill the void left behind by Hariri’s sudden departure.

Among others, the list includes his brother Bahaa Hariri and former friend, ally, and predecessor, ex-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Both are firmly allied to Saudi Arabia and have been cuddling up to its ambassador Walid Al Boukhari, who returned to Lebanon ahead of the elections in April, and is reaching out to anti-Hezbollah figures across the political spectrum.

Image Credit: Seyyed de la Llata, Senior Designer

Voters and lists

There are 3.9 million registered voters in Lebanon, 225,000 of which are expatriates living in the Diaspora. Seventy-four thousand of them are Maronite Christians, while 45,000 are Sunni Muslims, 44,000 are Shiites, 22,000 are Greek Orthodox Christians, while Catholics and Druze combined account for 15,000 of the expatriate voters. There are 103 lists registered for this month’s election, higher than the previous 2018 vote, when only 77 lists emerged competing for office.

Lebanese Sunnis, post-Hariri

Bahaa Hariri: After the murder of their father in 2005, Bahaa Hariri willingly relinquished the family’s political legacy to his brother Saad. He remained on the margins of political life until 2019, when he emerged to support a popular uprising, known as the October Revolution, calling for downfall of Hariri’s third government and overhaul of the entire political system. Earlier this year, he announced that he would take part in the May elections through a coalition of nine candidates called Sawa Li Lubnan.

Hariri has entered the race on an anti-Hezbollah ticket, hoping that it would win him points with Saudi Arabia and the United States. His candidates include Nicola Saba, the ex-mayor of Beirut, and a handful of defectors from his brother’s Future Movement.

Although sounding impressive on Day One, Hariri’s campaign has failed to attract grassroots support in Beirut, which might change on Election Day. For starters, many Beirut Sunnis are abiding by Saad’s boycott, and consider his brother’s campaign as a clear defection from the Future Movement.

Additionally, Bahaa has failed to show up in Lebanon during the election, addressing potential voters through televised address, with no personal lobbying. He has failed to back his election promises with subsidies and financial aid, which is much needed on the streets of Beirut, due to the dire economic condition.

And finally, Bahaa lacks the political clout to compete in all 15 districts that were once contested by his father and brother, like Beirut, Akkar, Tripoli, the Western Bekka, the Northern Bekka, Zahle, Chouf-Aley, Sidon-Jezzin, and Hasbayya. His campaign is focused only on Beirut, Sidon, Akkar, and the Bekka Valley.

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Sunni heavyweights from left to right: Bahaa Hariri, Fouad Siniora abd Ashraf Rifi. Image Credit: Reuters

Najib Mikati: Although he isn’t standing in the next elections, Prime Minister Mikati’s list, the Azm Movement, is campaigning in his native Tripoli. They currently hold a small bloc of four MPs in parliament, which they are hoping to expand to 5-8, allying themselves with former associates of Saad Hariri, who have defied his boycott.

Opposing them in Tripoli is rival Sunni candidate Ashraf Rifi, an ex-justice minister and former security chief, who like Bahaa Hariri, is also in the fray on an anti-Hezbollah ticket, under the slogan “End Iranian Occupation of Lebanon.” Tripoli stands second to Beirut in terms of Sunni importance, traditionally serving as a counterbalance to Harirism in Lebanon.

Fouad Siniora: A familiar name in Lebanon, Siniora has been active in politics since the 1990s. A life-long friend of the late Rafik Hariri, Siniora was chosen premier in 2005, shortly after Hariri’s assassination, and stayed in power until 2009. He challenged Hezbollah during the 2006 war with Israel and then in May 2008, when he tried and failed to dismantle their telecommunications network at Beirut International Airport.

He too has defied Saad Hariri’s boycott, calling on Sunnis to take part in the elections, both as voters and as candidates, in order to reclaim the state from Hezbollah. He too is not personally running for office but positioning himself as a “Sunni kingmaker” through supporting a list called Beirut Tuwajeh, headed by former Future Movement minister and MP Khaled Qabbani.

Siniora is fighting a battle on two fronts, first with Hariri loyalists who consider his activism as akin to treason against the Hariri family. And secondly, he is in open confrontation with Hezbollah. His supporters, if they win, will create a new Sunni bloc in the Chamber of Deputies, one that will undoubtedly be smaller than that of the Future Movement in previous years, but which nevertheless, is capable of challenging the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition, when it comes to naming a new president or prime minister.

Who are the main Christian parties?

The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which is rallied around President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gibran Bassil. It controls the lion’s share of seats in the outgoing chamber — a total of 29 — which it won with the support of Hezbollah back in 2018.

Bassil realises that increasing that share — or even maintaining it — is close to impossible. Hezbollah is nowhere as committed to the FPM as it was four years ago. It doesn’t trust Bassil nor does it want him to become president in October, having promised the job to its Maronite ally, Suleiman Frangieh.

In addition to lack of Hezbollah support, the FPM suffers three crippling setbacks. One is the luggage hanging over Bassil’s shoulders, after six years of the Aoun Era. Most Lebanese blame him for the financial meltdown, economic crisis, and the 2020 Beirut port explosion that killed over 200 citizens and tore down half the city.

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The upcoming elections were supposed to be a major battle for Lebanese Christians, fought between the Free Patriotic Movement of Gibran Bassil (left), the Marada Movement of Suleiman Frangieh (centre), and the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea. Image Credit: AP/AFP

Second, the US sanctions slapped on Bassil in November 2019. They have prevented him from reaching out to expatriate Maronite voters, especially in the United States.

And third is a coalition of traditional Christian families who are rallied to bring him down in Mount Lebanon, determined that he should never make it to the presidency. It includes the sons of former presidents Bashir Gemayel, Amin Gemayel, and Rene Mouawwad, and the great-grandson of former president Suleiman Frangieh.

There are ten seats for the 2nd Northern District in Mount Lebanon, divided across four regions. Bassil is running in his native Batroun, against Majd Harb, son of longtime parliamentarian and former presidential hopeful Boutros Harb. Samir Geagea’s wife is campaigning in the town of Bshirri and the Gemayels are running in Bekfayya.

The Lebanese Forces, is leading the campaign to bring down Gibran Bassil. During the 2018 elections, it won an impressive 15 seats in parliament, which entitled it to strong representation in the government, with important posts like that of Deputy Prime Minister.

They are allied with Fouad Siniora in trying to clip Hezbollah’s wings, and with the Social Progressive Party of Walid Jumblatt, who currently holds a parliamentary bloc of 9 MPs. He is not running for office but supporting the anti-Hezbollah campaign, describing the Axis of Resistance on Saturday as an “Axis of Fraud and Destruction.”

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Candidates from leading Christian clas, from left to right, clockwise: Strida Geagea (wife of Samir Geagea), Nadim Gemayel (son of slain president Bashir Gemayel), Sami Gemayel (son of former president Amin Gemayel), Michel Mouawwad (son of slain ex-president Rene Mouawwad), Tony Frangieh (grandson of ex-president Suleiman Frangieh), and Majd Harb (son of former presidential hopeful, Boutros Harb). Image Credit: Agencies

Challenges facing new parliament

The new chamber’s biggest challenge will be to elect a new president in October. But before that, however, it has to help solve the country’s economic crisis, steadily approaching its fourth year.

On April 7, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a $3 billion loan aimed at addressing the country’s needs. The loan came with strings attached, however: a functioning parliament that meets, and full-fledged government that must be created after the new chamber is inaugurated.

The IMF is demanding a series of serious and painful reforms, like floating its exchange rate, monitoring future government spending, revamping the electricity sector, combating corruption in the public sector, permitting external evaluation of the country’s 14 major banks, and introducing two laws, one for capital control and another for banking secrecy.

If these conditions are met, Lebanon would then enter into a new stage of negotiations, aimed at securing a larger amount from the IMF. The $3 billion is only a fraction of what the country needs, however. It is also a fraction of what it had originally asked for - $9-10 billion.