02/15/2022, 00.00
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The 5 key issues of the Lebanon's May elections

by Fady Noun

Turnout, the Christian vote, Sunni choices, the "Shiite wall" and opposition are the key points around which the electoral contest revolves. The future of a country on the brink of collapse due to the economic and financial crisis is at stake. Saad Hariri's resignation and Hezbollah's aims.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - On May 15, just over 3.9 million voters will be called to the polls under the proportional system to elect the 128 members of the National Assembly, equally divided between Christians and Muslims, for a four-year term. In the tense political and economic climate that characterises the current situation in Lebanon, according to authoritative and unequivocal sources, these elections are characterised by five main factors: the rate of participation; the outcome of the internal Christian struggle; the occupation of Sunni land; the chances of the opposition asserting itself; and, finally, the possible cracks within the Shia electorate. In the meantime, the international community is closely following the preparations leading up to the vote and is insisting that it be held within the timeframe laid down by law, without further delays. 

The five key elements of the vote are analysed below. 

Voter turn-out

In the last elections, in 2018, the turnout figure was 49%. More than two years after the popular uprisings of October 2019, will the Lebanese - this time - mobilise en masse to go to the polls? The question is central, because as experts explain a large popular participation and a strong adherence to the vote should favour opposition movements. And this may well be the case, provided that the opposition forces manage to move and convince the hitherto undecided electorate. However, on the Sunni side there is a certain risk of abstentionism after the decision of the leader of the Future Current, Saad Hariri, to boycott the elections. 

The only elements that can be relied on today are those related to the data on the registration of Lebanese abroad. The latter has almost tripled compared to 2018 (225,000 against 80,000), which suggests a more substantial mobilisation. Several commentators predict that the Lebanese vote abroad will go largely in favour of Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces, which have partly distanced themselves from the alignments linked to the system and which boast a large electoral basin in the areas where the diaspora is most present, especially in the United States. 

The Christian battle

This will undoubtedly be the mother of all contests. The main challenge is to know which between the Lebanese Forces or the Free Patriotic Current (CPL) of Gebran Bassil, son-in-law of President Michel Aoun and declining in the polls, will come out on top. Currently, the Lebanese Forces can count on 15 MPs, compared to 24 for the "Aounist" parliamentary group.

However, the results of either side will largely depend on the alliance games. It should also not be forgotten that the Lebanese Forces have lost their ally in the country, Saad Hariri's Future Current, while this is not the case for the other faction linked to the CPL. The winning party will become essential in the choice of the future president, although the latter's appointment will most likely have to be the subject of a broader consensus at both the local and regional level.

The occupation of Sunni land

This is one of the main unknowns. The announcement of the withdrawal of the Future Current on 24 January took everyone by surprise and led to a reshuffling of the cards. While Saad Hariri has expressed the hope that members of his party will not take part in the electoral race, he will certainly not be able to prevent Sunni personalities such as former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora from entering the battle.

Moreover, the competition should certainly not be taken lightly. In addition to the independent Sunnis - who represent 30% of the electorate and have the support of Hezbollah - several competitors must be taken into consideration. First and foremost is Baha' Hariri. The eldest of the Hariri family has a powerful electoral machine and vast resources. However, doubts remain over his ability to mobilise the voters of the Future Current.

On the other hand, there is another Sunni tycoon who might be able to make a return by investing in the political arena. He is Fouad Makhzoumi, who has always been able to show himself firmly in the presence of Hezbollah and the banking circles. For his part, Joseph Bahout, director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, says he fears that Saad Hariri's boycott of the elections will benefit Hezbollah, as well as favouring certain Sunni fundamentalist fringes. 

The opposition's chances

Forecasts that give the opposition a high probability of breaking through because of popular anger and discontent should be taken with great caution. The ability of civil society actors to unite around a coherent programme will be decisive. An unity of intent that was absent in the 2018 vote. The divergences within the opposition are mainly crystallised around the alliance with traditional political actors, who say they are linked to the protest movements, such as Kataëb or those of former MPs Neemat Frem or Michel Moawad. If the opposition front manages to put aside differences and personality conflicts, and if it manages to present credible candidates, it could certainly benefit from the exasperation of popular circles, especially within Christian and Sunni circles.

The impermeability of the 'Shiite wall

In theory, this is one of the few certainties of the vote: the tandem formed by Hezbollah and Amal should obtain more or less the same number of deputies (27). For the Shiite front, whether the turnout is high or low makes little difference, because their electoral bloc is almost invariable, as expert Georgia Dagher notes. Nevertheless, some groups are emerging to represent the protest movements in the region with a strong Shia majority, hoping to break through this unshakable wall.

The popular Shia base has been affected like other communities by the economic and financial crisis, and may resort to voting to punish incumbents, especially among voters in the Amal movement, which experts say has been most affected by the economic collapse. According to political analyst Assem Chaaya, "we must not take for granted the strength of the two major Shiite actors at the ballot box. In his study, the specialist estimates that Hezbollah (343,000 votes) and Amal (204,199 votes) together obtained 547,199 votes out of a total of 1,068,274 Shiite voters in 2018, a figure that by no means represents an absolute majority as we tend to believe.

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