Truth about Lebanon elections

June 20, 2009

In News

By Assaf Kfoury

The celebratory accounts in the Western press of the Lebanese election of June 7th are replete with fragmentary information which confuses more than it explains. Perhaps this is unavoidable in the limited space of media commentaries. Less pardonable are the blatant distortions to justify more aggressive policies towards Lebanon and the rest of the region.

The most extravagant is perhaps the idea that Obama’s fifty-minute speech to the Muslim World in Cairo on June 4th had something to do with the Lebanese outcome — that it was the crucial difference that magically delivered a parliamentary victory for the pro-Western March 14th alliance. This is what some Western commentators have exuberantly called the “Obama effect” without which, presumably, the Lebanese election would have gone the other way.[1]

No less fanciful is that the outcome of the Lebanese election is a victory for democracy and a defeat for despotism. According to this view, when political contests are decided by “ballots over bullets” and without intimidation, voters generally prefer pro-democracy candidates (which is undoubtedly true) who are spontaneously pro-Western too (which is highly questionable). In the Lebanese case, it is assumed that the opposition led by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of former General Michel Aoun could only win by threats, whereas the March 14th alliance appealed to the electorate by its respect of democracy and trust of people’s free will. So the claim goes.[2]

Another fantastic explanation with no basis in reality is that Lebanon has enjoyed a period of economic stability and prosperity under the government led by prime minister Fouad Siniora. According to this explanation, grateful Lebanese voters re-elected a majority of parliamentarians from the March 14th alliance, with which Siniora is affiliated.[3]

None of these explanations holds. Whatever grains of truth they may contain, they are of little significance compared to endemic external interference, sectarian incitement, relatively low voter turnout (by comparison to national elections elsewhere), and the millions spent on vote-buying and vote-rigging.

If anything, American policies in the average Lebanese voter’s mind are not exemplified by Obama’s pious pronouncements in Cairo on June 4th, but by a long record of unrestricted support for Israel’s meddling in internal Lebanese affairs and oppression of Palestinians, as well as American alliance with despotic Arab regimes, the devastation of Iraq, and aggressive interventions further East.

More to the point, in the months and weeks preceding the election, the Lebanese public was subjected to vigorous intimidation (and mammoth traffic jams in downtown Beirut) by a succession of high-profile American visitors — including General David Petraeus, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Vice-President Joseph Biden — warning of dire consequences if the “spoilers of peace” won the election.[4] Bullying and threats also came from Israel. Fresh in people’s memory was the devastation resulting from Israel’s putting Lebanon to the torch in July-August of 2006 and again Gaza in January 2009.

As for the “flourishing” Lebanese economy under Siniora’s stewardship, it is best described by its unswerving respect of neo-liberal economic policies, no different in fact from those of any of Mr. Siniora’s predecessors and any of his would-be successors (whether from the March 14th alliance or from the Hezbollah-FPM opposition). True, Lebanon has been largely spared the effects of the worldwide economic recession, at least so far. But this is mainly due to huge remittances from expatriates and rich real-estate speculators from the Gulf region. Prior to June 7th, Lebanese voters in the disproportionately large service sector and most parliamentary candidates were more concerned about protecting the post-election tourist season, sustained by the huge summer influx of free-spending Gulf residents, than about discussing long-term policies to alleviate growing income disparities.

Nonetheless, it remains that the mainstream Western media’s celebration is warranted from the vantage point of policy makers in Washington and allied capitals. The celebration reflects the surprise that the March 14th alliance, the great favorite of the US and all its allies, did not lose its parliamentary majority, contrary to predictions from all sides up until June 7th.

The outcome was unexpected to many Lebanese too, but less so to the few who followed the situation closely and perceived a shift in the public mood. In recent months and up to election day, perceptive local commentators noted that while the March 14th alliance brought powerful means to bear on the electoral campaign (lavish funding of candidates and aggressive media ads), the opposition led by the Hezbollah-FPM alliance became mired in sectarian politics almost as much as its opponents and gave short shrift to potential non-sectarian and extra-parliamentary allies. At the end, the opposition waged its electoral campaign as another traditional Lebanese political coalition and at its own peril, without the support of many of the non-sectarian friends it had neglected.

Consociational Democracy[5]

To understand what was, and what was not, at stake in the Lebanese election (and past elections too) we need to briefly explain how the sectarian-based (so-called confessional) system of government was set up and increasingly entrenched in Lebanon’s political life.

In its simplest definition, confessionalism is a power-sharing formula based on religious denomination. The system did not always exist and Lebanese were not ordained to live in it. Lebanese and other communities of the Levant existed for hundreds of years before it was first introduced in the second half of the 19th Century. It was partly dictated by the balance in the contest between a declining Ottoman Empire and encroaching European colonial powers. The latter sought out local partners (commercial agents, political allies, consular officers) among co-religionists or members of religious minorities, in exchange for special privileges and protection against Ottoman authorities. The arrangement was then adjusted and re-adjusted, but never abandoned, after every political upheaval ever since, always at the prodding if not behest of external actors.

A central feature of the confessional system, today as in decades past, is therefore to tie internal affairs to external interests and sponsors, different for different confessional parties. In a small country such as Lebanon (4 million in an area slightly less than Connecticut in size), in the midst of a region where global forces are in confrontation, it invites massive external interference and belies lofty proclamations about “national independence” by Lebanese politicians.

The most recent version of the confessional setup, in place since the Taif Accord of October 1989 that ended the civil war, is a variation of a formula adopted in 1943 when France was forced to grant Lebanon its formal independence: the president of the republic must be a Maronite Christian, the speaker of the parliament a Shia Muslim, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and parliament seats are equally divided between Christians and Muslims, with each of the two blocks divided among various Christian denominations and Muslim denominations in predetermined proportions.

Even on the rare occasions when parliamentary candidates representing non-confessional interests are elected, they must fill seats that are allotted to the religious sects to which they belong. This effectively excludes all political parties that are organized on platforms other than confessional. Thus, for example, the Communist Party has never been represented as such in government in any capacity, even though it is the oldest political party in Lebanon (founded in 1924) and has had a presence in labor unions throughout its history.

But confessionalism is not just a power-sharing formula based on religious denomination, supported by competing external interests and sponsors. It is also a rigid system of intra-sect and intra-district patronage, which identifies ordinary citizens not only by sect but also by district of origin, the latter often being different from district of residence. The result is to make citizens dependent on politicians of their own sect and district of origin (not residence) to promote and defend their rights. It is very rare that a successful Lebanese politician becomes a truly “national” leader with a constituency across all sects and all districts.

Needless to say, geographic distances between districts of residence (where voters work and socially interact) and districts of origin (where voters must cast their ballots) do not encourage large voter participation. This in turn invites vote-rigging and vote-buying on a large scale, especially in closely contested districts, with the best-funded candidate typically carrying the day.

Class interests naturally cut across, and are at odds with, the divisions promoted by confessionalism. Any form of class solidarity undermines these divisions and, as a reaction, brings the political elites of all sectarian stripes together in order to prevent its emergence. There are moments when a majority of the Lebanese unite across confessional lines, as when they overwhelmingly embraced resistance to the Israeli onslaught in July-August 2006. But they do so at a spontaneous popular level, sometimes acting against confessional leaders that claim to represent them and their external sponsors.

To sum up, endemic features of elections in Lebanon’s confessional system are: (1) massive external interference, (2) relatively low voter turnout even in hotly contested districts, and (3) vote-rigging and vote-buying. All of these features were on display in the June 7th election, and more so this time than in past elections.

Assessing the Results of an Election

For all the extravagant publicity, intensive campaigning and international attention, participation rate on June 7th was slightly over 50 percent. This means that about half of the eligible voters decided to sit out the election, not finding enough in it to serve their interests by casting a ballot. In fact, perhaps more than half of those residing in Lebanon itself did not vote, if we factor out the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 expatriates, who were specifically flown in from the Gulf region and distant places of Lebanese immigration (North America, West Africa, Australia) to vote for the parties that paid their way (plus generous “pocket money”).

As for sources of external funding, Saudi Arabia and Iran headed the list. This was an open secret in Beirut, but it soon made international headlines. According to a recent report in Newsweek:[6]

“The Saudis gave massive financial support to the victorious coalition of Saad Hariri. As long ago as March, one well-connected operative from Riyadh was telling me privately but with evident pride that his country had spent more in Lebanon, a nation of 4 million, than the record-breaking $715 million Barack Obama’s campaign spent in the United States. And even if my source was indulging in wild hyperbole, Beirut had become a kind of electoral e-Bay for vote buyers from Riyadh and Tehran …”

Much has been written by generally progressive observers of Middle-Eastern affairs, mostly in alternative news websites, about the skewed apportioning of Lebanese voters by districts.[7] They point out that, according to the popular vote, the Hezbollah-FPM opposition won over the March 14th alliance by a margin of about 8 percentage points on June 7th. This is a form of extreme gerrymandering, Lebanese style.

All that has been written and said about the skewed apportioning of voters is indeed true. However, this is not a flaw of the June 7th election per se, but of the rules according to which it was conducted. These rules were known ahead of time and accepted by all parties competing in the election. They are part and parcel of the confessional system, and changing them means doing away with confessionalism altogether. Some commentators supporting the Hezbollah-FPM opposition have cried foul and disparaged the June 7th election as a travesty. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has tried to calm down hothead followers, inside and outside Lebanon, repeating that the election results were “fair” and that he accepts them.

For a glimmer of hope, it is worth mentioning that between 1.5 and 2 percent of the cast ballots were blank, with the percentage varying from one district to another. These were people who made the effort of travelling to polling stations and denying their vote to either side, their own way of protesting against the system. In hotly contested districts, a 1.5 or 2 percent difference separated winner from loser.

Where To From Here?

According to time-honored Lebanese practices, there will be in fact no “winner” and no “loser.” There will be a “national unity” government including members from all sides, roughly apportioned according to their respective shares of parliamentary seats. Saad Hariri, as leader of the largest parliamentary block, will probably get the honor of heading the new government. As for his credentials to hold this position, it will suffice that he is the son of the late prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

This election, as any of past Lebanese elections, re-confirmed the confessional setup. Voters were not asked to vote for one socio-economic platform against another, because there were no such competing platforms fundamentally differentiating the two sides from the start. As a perceptive Beirut columnist wrote, the new government will be “a winner that will not govern and a loser that will not oppose.”[8]

While from a Lebanese perspective this is all more of the same, it also means no clear win for the US and its regional allies. And herein lies the danger, if Israel, and the US behind it, decides that even one cabinet minister from Hezbollah makes the whole government a legitimate target.


  • 1. ^ Typical of this tendency are articles by the influential columnist, Thomas Friedman; see for example his “Ballots Over Bullets,” NY Times, June 10, 2009. Another commentator supporting the “Obama effect” is, somewhat surprisingly, Juan Cole; see his “Obama Wins an Election in the Middle East,”, June 10, 2009. Cole is better informed than Friedman and less prone to cheer-lead for American imperial interests.
  • 2. ^ See again Thomas Friedman’s article, op. cit., or his subsequent “Winds Of Change?” NY Times, June 14, 2009. For a neo-con commentary with much of the same claims, see Elliott Abrams’ “Lebanon’s Triumph, Iran’s Travesty,” NY Times, June 12, 2009.
  • 3. ^ From someone who should know better, see again Juan Cole’s article, op. cit.
  • 4. ^ Vice-President Biden’s words, at a press conference in Beirut on May 22, 2009.
  • 5. ^ “Consociational democracy” (al-deemuqratiyyah al-tawafuqiyyah) is what some Lebanese politicians have taken to calling their system of government recently. It is a euphemism for the more traditional but increasingly disparaged “confessionalism.” Lebanese politicians are all too ready to decry the many ills of confessionalism, in order to curry favor with voters, but not really willing or able to give up the privileges it accords them.
  • 6. ^ Christopher Dickey, “War, Peace, and a Political Touch,” Newsweek, June 9, 2009. See also the earlier report by Robert F. Worth, “Foreign Money Seeks to Buy Lebanese Votes,” NY Times, April 22, 2009.
  • 7. ^ See for example Alain Gresh, “Lebanon: Hizbullah’s defeat,” Le Monde Diplomatique, blogspot, June 11, 2009, as well as the references therein.
  • 8. ^ Fawwaz Traboulsi, “A Winner that Will not Govern and a Loser that Will not Oppose” (in Arabic) as-Safir, June 11, 2009.

Assaf Kfoury is Professor of Computer Science at Boston University. He is an Arab American who grew up in Beirut and Cairo, and returns frequently to the Middle East. He recently edited a collection of essays, diaries, and photographs — Inside Lebanon (Monthly Review Press, 2007) — documenting Noam and Carol Chomsky’s journey to Lebanon in May 2006 and situating it within the tragically altered context of the region before and after the war of July-August 2006.