The 2022 Lebanese general elections that took place on May 15th has signaled a shift in both public opinion and the balance of power within the National Assembly. Gaining only 58 seats out of 128, Hezbollah and its allies have lost their parliamentary majority. While Hezbollah candidates retained all their seats, key allies such as the Free Patriotic Movement and Amal Movement suffered losses. The results were also a breakthrough for anti-establishment parties, which managed to win approximately 10% of the parliamentary seats, a large shift from the previous one seat won in the 2018 elections. This large shift towards reformist political groups comes amid the backdrop of mass protests against established political elite, the 2020 Beirut port explosion, and a prolonged economic collapse.
The Beirut port explosion in 2020, which killed more than 200 people, was largely due to the negligence and corruption of Lebanese government officials and leaders, allowing for potentially explosive compounds to be stored in the port for nearly six years. Evidence suggests that government officials failed to take necessary safety precautions and inadequately managed the material, and senior leaders including President Michel Aoun and former Prime Minister Hassan Diab knew of the risks. Despite a government commissioned investigation into the explosion and negligence, no one has been held accountable due to resistance by Hezbollah and political elite immunity from prosecution. Not only did the explosion further expose the government’s corruption, but it plunged even more people into poverty. The Lebanese Lira has lost 90% of its value since 2019, when protests first began in demonstration against the economic downturn and corruption. Inflation has significantly impacted poorer populations’s access to basic necessities, with nearly half of the Lebanese population having been food insecure in 2021.
Given Lebanon’s economic crisis, the political elite had greater leverage to maintain their power in parliament, with more people desperate for income provided by a corrupt patronage system. Furthermore, Lebanon’s government structure does not make it easy for opposition parties to gain seats in parliament and allow for political change to occur. Lebanon’s parliament continues to be a religious confessional system with political parties that are strictly divided along sectarian lines. Sectarian political dynasties have continued to maintain power through creating an electoral system that favors traditional ruling parties, mainly from gerrymandering and clientelism. This is why the election of anti-establishment groups marks a critical change for Lebanese politics and hope for impactful change. Instead of being disillusioned with the lack of reform within a deeply corrupt and gridlocked system, Lebanese citizens were able to show their discontent at the polls.
The new parliament is now tasked with the responsibility of approving a new president and prime minister, as well as an economic recovery plan. The new economic recovery plan includes a $3 billion bailout by the IMF, which is contingent on passing a significant amount of reform laws. These reform laws include restructuring the banking sector, improving transparency, and unifying the exchange rate. While Lebanon has previously struggled to implement these reforms due to the interests of political elites, the new anti-establishment members within parliament will try to push increased reform on corruption and transparency. The opposition movement is relatively new, however, and lacks unified political discourse due to its ideological diversity among the parties. With the Hezbollah bloc also losing its majority, the parliament now poses the risk of being in complete political deadlock.
While one election will not be enough to make sweeping reform that is needed, the election of independent and reformist candidates is a key milestone in the long-term process of democratic consolidation in Lebanon. In order to further this progress, independent candidates must unify and set goals towards advancing reform and approving the economic recovery plan. Through lifting Lebanon out of its economic crisis and making progress against corruption, this could further the election of anti-establishment candidates through reducing the potential for corrupt vote-buying and clientelism. However, they will be up against established elites that still control roughly 90% of the parliament. There also remains a strong fear of violence among citizens, with the apprehension that upending the status quo may lead to future violent incidents. Hezbollah’s military force helps to ensure it maintains political power and influence. Therefore, reform efforts will also need to be made to disarm political parties. These transformations will take time, but the 2022 general elections has given hope that Lebanon is on the road to reform.