Damascus: Lebanon is going for early parliamentary elections, said Prime Minister Najib Mikati during a television interview on September 27. Originally scheduled for May 8, 2022, the elections will now be held on March 27, fulfilling one of the many demands of angry Lebanese citizens who took to the streets of Beirut back in October 2019, demanding early elections, accountability, and restructuring of the entire political system.
While ordinary citizens welcomed the announcement, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) was unhappy and so was its leader, Gibran Bassil, son-in-law of President Michel Aoun.
Why is FPM worried?
Bassil has been trying hard to call off the elections altogether, fearing they would diminish his parliamentary bloc of 29 MPs, currently the largest in the Chamber of Deputies. Bassil will have a hard time winning the same number of seats, which he badly needs to nominate himself for the presidency in October, when his father-in-law’s term ends.
By law, he would need 65 out of 128 seats to nominate himself. He has lost much of the support that he once enjoyed when the last elections happened in 2018, and many accuse now him of corruption and nepotism, even within his own Maronite Christian community.
Bassil and Aoun shoulder much of the blame for the economic meltdown in Lebanon, and the August 2020 explosion at the Beirut port of that killed 230 citizens and tore down half of the city.
Blast probe derailed
A probe into the Beirut port explosion faced the risk of being derailed for the second time this year on Monday when a senior politician wanted for questioning filed a complaint doubting the lead investigator’s impartiality.
The move followed a smear campaign by Lebanon’s political class against Judge Tarek Bitar, who was appointed after his predecessor was forced out following similar accusations by officials he wanted to question about suspected negligence.
Meanwhile, a handful of officials close to Bassil, including former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, have already been accused of “criminal negligence” that led to the port explosion. Other figures on the list of the accused are three of Diab’s ministers, who were all brought to power by the FPM. Bassil had repeatedly tried to postpone the elections, claiming that due to the economic and security crisis in Lebanon, holding nationwide parliamentary elections would be too risky and costly.
That has now been overruled by Prime Minister Mikati, who formed his government in early September. Six of Mikati’s ministers are members of the FPM but the powerful Ministry of Interior is held by Bassam Mawlawi, a protégé of ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri. And it will be the Ministry of Interior that will be handling the elections next March, much to the horror of the FPM.
Big parties, same results
Hariri’s Future Party does not fear early elections, seemingly confident that it will win the same number of seats that it currently holds in the Chamber of Deputies (12). On the contrary, Hariri might even raise his share and return to the 21 MPs that he had prior to the last elections of 2018, given that he has distanced himself from the Aoun era, resigned in aftermath of the October Revolution and has since been marketing himself and his party as staunch opponent of the FPM.
In fact, he cited Bassil’s conditions as the main reason for declining to form a government last July.
Other big parties have little to worry about, also confident that early elections will not affect their parliamentary standing. Hezbollah currently has a bloc of 13 MPs, strongly allied with the Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (17 MPs). They remain the two most powerful players in the Shiite community and all votes will be neatly divided among them.
Small parties with big ambitions
Supporting early parliamentary elections are three Christian parties that are striving to increase their share in the new Parliament, and to bring down Gibran Bassil. Two of them are traditional opponents of the FPM, being the Lebanese Phalange of the Gemayel family and the Lebanese Forces (LF) of Samir Gaegea.
The Phalange currently has a tiny bloc of 3 MPs, but the LF swept an impressive 15 out of 128 seats in the 2018 Parliament, only to collectively resign over the port explosion fiasco in August 2020. They are now eying a comeback that will be at the expense of the FPM while the Phalange is hoping to expand its share from 3 to 5-6 MPs.
Frangieh wants to be president, too
Also supporting an early vote is the Marada Party of Sulaiman Frangieh, technically allies of the FPM in the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition. Frangieh has his eyes set on the Lebanese presidency, however, and is adamant on challenging Bassil in October 2022. He has the regional support of both Syria and Iran and locally, Hezbollah wants to make him president. To do that, however, he needs to increase his parliamentary standing, currently at 3 MPs.
The only thing that can turn the tables in favour of Bassil is if Lebanese expatriates are denied the right to vote in upcoming elections, an option that is currently making the rounds in Lebanese political circles. There is no specific figure on how many Lebanese packed up and left over the past two years, but they have all voted with their feet and shown their utmost displeasure with the Aoun administration.
We also don’t have an exact figure as to what their confessional background is but most estimates say that the new wave of expatriates is cross-sectarian, covering Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and Maronite Christians.
Many started leaving after the banking sector collapsed in late 2019 while hundreds walked away in the aftermath of port explosion in August 2020. Forty per cent of them are doctors, says the WHO, and 30 per cent are nurses. If they are allowed to vote next March (which is a constitutional right), then their ballot would certainly not be for Bassil and any of his candidates.
For them to vote, however, they would need to register at Lebanese embassies by no later than November 20 and their names have to be sent to Lebanon by December 20. The Foreign Ministry, currently held by a Aoun protégé, has not taken any steps towards their inclusion in any parliamentary vote, whether in March or May 2022.