Anthony Elghossain, a program officer for the United States Institute of Peace and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @aelghossain.
After suffering through a decade of intermittent institutional vacuums, recurring bouts of political paralysis, and constitutional crises, many Lebanese are eager—relieved, even—to participate in political life again. Lebanese leaders have provided the people a chance to reset their representation in parliament and, mostly, to vent their frustration by voting. However, these leaders have only entrenched their positions in power. Reformists who harbor hope for the 2018 elections are in for a rude awakening, as will be demonstrated by the election results—but especially the post-election period of coalition crafting, cabinet formation, and policy formulation, to say nothing of the ensuing years of post-election politics.
Lebanese leaders will rely on three tactics to preserve their position: confusion, competition, and consolidation.
Lebanese voters are confused by the 2018 electoral framework, which is a hodgepodge of constitutional provisions, laws, regulations, and accepted semi-licit or illicit practices. In addition to communal and geographic allocations, the Lebanese must now contend with freshly gerrymandered districts, proportional representation, preferential voting, and formula-based seat distribution. Many Lebanese do not fully understand the framework, and those who do disagree as to what its effects might be. And those who share interests disagree on the best strategy or on how to best execute it in the ballot booth. To slice through the complexity, many will walk to their preferred party’s local office and check on “what it is [they] want me to do.”1
In addition to crafting the convoluted electoral framework that keeps many Lebanese dependent on the established elites’ political machines, Lebanese leaders are reengaging in political competition. After the Cedar Revolution of 2005, Lebanese leaders coalesced in two coalitions, March 14 and March 8. While the coalitions did have internal conflicts, their leaders, who were unwilling and unable to reposition themselves in a polarized political environment, managed to extract benefits that outweighed the coalitions’ costs. But these coalitions have completely collapsed over the past two years. Entering into “sometimes surreal” alliances in some areas while going it alone in others, Lebanese leaders are now trying to maximize their share of the pie—so that they can more effectively compete for influence in the state. By competing and escalating their electoral rhetoric, Lebanese leaders will mobilize masses otherwise marred by apathy. And, more importantly, they will divert the popular pressures of the past few years: having begun to agitate against the elite as a collective class, most Lebanese will once again allow a faction within the elite to direct their frustrations against another faction of that self-same elite.
After the vote, Lebanese elites will then consolidate and preserve their collective position. To be sure, some parties will remain more powerful than others, just as some leaders will remain more capable than others. And these elites may gain or lose parliamentary seats in the election—thereby also altering the agreed-upon allocations of cabinet seats. But none of the half-dozen leaders, their parties, or their supporters are going to suffer a death blow at the hands of reformists and civil society actors—not in 2018, at least. Even as they compete to shape the cabinet’s policy statement, hire certain civil servants, control certain ministries, and extract benefits from the state, they will once again unite to preserve their position atop the system (as they did, for instance, in resisting recent foreign meddling in Lebanon). The more things—laws, parties, and figureheads—change, the more they stay the same.
1. Interview with the author, Beirut.