PGI INSIGHT: Lebanon risks international isolation over recent elections
- Though Lebanon’s May parliamentary elections did not increase Hezbollah’s domestic influence considerably, many international media outlets and political commentators declared Hezbollah the victor.
- Perceptions that Hezbollah dominated the elections may significantly impact Lebanon’s relations with foreign governments. Countries working to limit Iran’s influence in the region will attempt to use the narrative that Hezbollah controls Lebanon to increase sanctions against Lebanese individuals and businesses.
- Domestically, the largely unchanged balance of power in Lebanon means that progress on sorely needed political reform will be slow and continue to depend on broad political alliances.
Lebanon’s 2018 elections, the country’s first since 2009, were held under a new electoral law, a hard-earned political compromise which changed Lebanon’s electoral system from majoritarian to proportional representation. Hezbollah won 13 seats, while its close ally Amal, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, increased its seats from 13 to 16. With the support of several smaller parties, the coalition secured the one-third of parliamentary seats needed to block major political decisions. However, Hezbollah and its closest allies cannot enact policy without engaging other elements of the political spectrum.
The claim that Hezbollah made significant gains stems mainly from advances by political actors with whom Hezbollah has more fragile alliances, like President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). FPM has been a Hezbollah ally in the past and supports its possession of arms, but assertions that Hezbollah now dominates Lebanon’s political sphere fail to recognise that a continued alliance between Hezbollah, Amal and FPM is by no means certain. FPM was a staunch critic of Hezbollah prior to their 2006 reconciliation, and both parties will reassess the value of the relationship in response to changing circumstances.
The recent electoral results mean that widespread coalition building will remain a necessity for progress on any major policy initiatives, and consequently, political progress in Lebanon will continue to be slow. The 2016 deal that made Saad al-Hariri prime minister and Michel Aoun president demonstrates broad political agreement in Lebanon is possible. The compromise reached between rivals Hezbollah, FPM and the Future Movement ended a 29-month long presidential vacuum, but those party to the deal are far from agreement on many major political issues including Lebanon’s economic and defence policy.
The deal also still faces opposition from several influential figures, including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, former prime minister Najib Mikati, Maronite leader Sleiman Frangieh, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri – a testament to the crosscutting divides and competing priorities which continue to jeopardise compromise on issues of national importance.
The Lebanese elections failed to substantially alter the domestic balance of power, and progress will continue to depend on achieving political consensus among deeply divided factions — something that has consistently eluded Lebanese politicians in the past. The election results thus appear unlikely to provide a solution to Lebanon’s severe macroeconomic difficulties. The country’s debt to GDP ratio, expected to widen to 149 percent in 2018, is among the highest in the world. Economic growth has slowed from around 10 percent in 2007-2010 to approximately two percent in 2011-2017. The fiscal adjustment needed to reverse the growth of Lebanon’s debt would be difficult under the best of circumstances and will face the added challenge of a highly divided political landscape.
Severe international implications
Internationally, however, inaccurate perceptions that Hezbollah has gained significant new influence in Lebanon may have far-reaching impacts. Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett stated that for Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah are now synonymous, and that “the state of Israel will … view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory.” This statement ostensibly sought to lay the groundwork for legitimising any future Israeli hostilities against Lebanon by promoting a narrative that reduces Lebanon to a base for what Israel and the US consider to be a terrorist group. This suggests Israeli military action against Lebanon now appears more likely to gain US support.
Saudi Arabia may seek to intensify Lebanon’s international isolation. The Saudi government has long sought to control Lebanon and curb Hezbollah’s influence by supporting Hariri’s Future Movement. However, Riyadh’s frustration at Hariri’s inability to align Lebanon with Saudi Arabia’s regional priorities has been evident for some time. This was particularly apparent in November 2017, when Hariri resigned during a visit to Riyadh, in what was widely considered an act of Saudi coercion, only to withdraw his resignation upon his return to Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia may now seek to exploit the narrative of Lebanon as a pariah state run by Hezbollah to isolate Lebanon internationally, rather than trying to influence it from within. There are already indicators of this strategy — Saudi Arabia was largely absent from the recent Lebanese election campaign and imposed new sanctions on the country just days after the election. All of this serves as a Saudi endorsement of the narrative that Lebanon and Hezbollah are now one and the same — and perhaps a tacit message that Riyadh will not strongly oppose future Israeli military action there.
The perception that Hezbollah gained influence in the recent elections also increases the likelihood of further sanctions against Lebanese companies and individuals by Iran’s rivals in the region and abroad. The Trump Administration imposed new sanctions on Lebanese nationals linked to Hezbollah days after the election, in a joint action with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar. Sanctions targeted Hezbollah’s leadership, including leader Hassan Nasrallah, deputy Naim Qassem, and members of Hezbollah’s Shura Council, in what was described as an effort to disrupt Iran’s “malign activities”.
Economically, additional sanctions from the US and Gulf states will place even greater strain on Lebanon’s stunted economy and may further impede desperately needed domestic reforms. Fresh sanctions from Gulf nations could jeopardise much-needed remittance flows to Lebanon and could extend to restrictions on the movement of goods and people, as well as financial flows. Though the US has not completely abandoned Lebanon — it continues to fund the Lebanese army — the notion that Hezbollah is in control lends support to those who argue for further sanctions against Lebanon as a tool to weaken Iran.
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