Lebanon is holding its first parliamentary elections in nine years, a pivotal moment for the country as it tries to ease a crippling debt burden and avoid being dragged deeper into some of the Middle East’s escalating crises.
Polls opened on Sunday under a new law based on proportional representation that’s meant to more accurately represent Lebanon’s complex sectarian demographics. With few expecting major changes to the delicate balance of power, the post-ballot focus will be on building a cabinet able to carry out measures sought by donors, a complicated task in a country where divisions have stymied reforms for decades.
“Irrespective of who wins the elections, Lebanon will face hurdles implementing reforms,” said Hani Sabra, founder of Alef Advisory, a New York-based consultancy. Results will be released May 7, according to ballot observers.
In order to receive $11 billion pledged at an April conference in France, the incoming government will have to take steps to control the world’s third-biggest debt burden, including cuts to public spending and a crackdown on corruption. Making the challenges more daunting is a heated confrontation between Israel and Iran, one that could degenerate into a war involving Hezbollah, the Shiite armed group backed by Tehran and which plays a key role in Lebanese politics.
Hezbollah is the only group that kept its weapons after the end of Lebanon’s civil war. Along with its partners, Hezbollah could win about a third of the 128 seats in parliament, giving it the “power to block decisions,” said Rosanna Bou Monsef, a political commentator for the An-Nahar daily. Still, Hezbollah’s leaders might downplay electoral successes that could “drive investors away,” she said.
There are signs that’s already happening. “The new law allows diversity to be represented,” Hezbollah lawmaker Hasan Fadlallah said in an interview.
“Lebanon’s makeup is sectarian and doesn’t allow the defeat of one at the expense of another.”
Elections were last held in 2009 and parliament has since extended its own term twice, citing security concerns related to the Syrian conflict -- which has forced 1.5 million refugees into Lebanon -- and claims by Christian groups and others that they were under represented under the old vote rules.
Under the power-sharing agreement that ended the civil war, Lebanon’s prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the president a Maronite Christian and parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim.'
Hezbollah is set to benefit from the collapse of the main Saudi Arabia-backed Sunni-led coalition, as well as the new electoral laws.
Founded in 1982 to fight Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, the group has carved out a powerful political role with two ministers in the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Its presence is felt elsewhere, too, with Hezbollah fighters backing the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Israel has repeatedly struck targets in Syria in part to block weapons transfers to Hezbollah, which is sanctioned by the US as a terrorist organization. Concerns are growing of a direct Iran-Israel clash.
A third force in Lebanese politics is controlled by Christian President Michel Aoun. It will likely attempt to build ties with Gulf Arab countries and the West while not damaging its existing links to Hezbollah, said Paul Salem, senior vice president at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
“They don’t want to come to blows with Hezbollah, but they also want economic growth and development and to make Aoun’s presidency a success,” he said.
North Korea says US provoking with threats
North Korea on Sunday warned Washington that claiming Pyongyang was forced into talks by US pressure risked returning the peninsula “back to square one”, as the world awaits a landmark summit between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump.
But, a spokesman for the North Korea’s foreign ministry accused the US of “deliberately provoking” Pyongyang in an effort to undermine the current “atmosphere of dialogue”. Describing Pyongyang's recent move as a “sign of weakness” would “not be conducive” to talks, and may “bring the situation back to square one”, he added. The spokesman did not explicitly mention the Kim-Trump summit, and Pyongyang has yet to make any formal announcement of their planned meeting. Tensions have run high between the two men over the last year, with both leaders trading threats of war and colourful personal insults that sparked global concern.
But in a dramatic diplomatic turnaround, Kim vowed with Moon to seek denuclearisation and pursue a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War through a peace treaty with Seoul.
Kim also pledged to close its nuclear test site this month and invited US experts and journalists to verify the move.