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    Lebanon’s elections are going to prolong people’s suffering

    May 2022

    With the parliamentary election over in Lebanon, the country in my opinion will have to focus on three broad objectives:

    First, forming a government which will last.

    Second, preparing for the presidential election in September or October.

    And third, moving forward on essential economic reforms as described in my previous article about Lebanon to alleviate the suffering of its population.

    However, the election results may well indefinitely hinder the achievement of these objectives and desperately needed changes most probably will need more time – time Lebanon and its population don’t have. If there is no consensus around the next head of state and Lebanon enters a presidential vacuum, the government will take on presidential powers and may in my opinion last for longer than expected. That is why negotiations over its formation are bound to be highly divisive.

    The question of who will succeed President Michel Aoun is also contentious. Until the parliamentary election, the two front-runners were Gebran Bassil, Mr. Aoun’s son-in-law, and Suleiman Frangieh, a politician from northern Lebanon whose grand-father was president from 1970 until 1976. However, the largest Christian bloc post-elections will be controlled by the Lebanese Forces, whose leader Samir Geagea also has presidential ambitions and will strongly contest Mr. Bassil and Mr. Frangieh.

    Mr. Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement, lost ground in the legislative election, while the list backed by Mr. Frangieh did relatively poorly. Neither man, therefore in my opinion will be able to credibly make the case that he is the most legitimate Maronite Christian candidate for the presidency. I smell more chaos to come. The fact that Hezbollah strenuously opposes Mr. Geagea suggests there will be no easy agreement on a successor to Mr. Aoun, and the outcome may in my opinion be a long political void, unless compromise is reached.

    The election results suggest the two broad blocks will emerge in parliament – one led by the Lebanese Forces, with its allies, particularly from the Sunni community; and a Hezbollah – led coalition, formed with the Aounists. This may make again for a period of stalemate ahead, because of Lebanon’s widening polarization. All this will in my opinion have a fundamental, and very negative, bearing on the prospect of achieving economic reforms, which have not progressed since the economy collapsed in 2019. Yet, with economic indicators continuing to deteriorate and the World Bank predicting zero growth in 2020, Lebanon in my opinion cannot afford to waste any more time.

    A report this month by the United Nations (UN) special envoy on poverty accused the government and the Central Bank of human rights violations in impoverishing the population. The report stated that Lebanese officials had “a sense of impunity” and appeared to be living “in a fantasy land”. I couldn’t agree more!

    Just recently, the Lebanese government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed to what is known as a staff agreement, in which the IMF said it would provide 3-4 billion dollar to Lebanon if the country implemented required economic reforms and an audit of the banking sector. Yet, continued factionalism has hindered progress. In my opinion, it’s just a shame!

    If political divisions are exacerbated in the coming months, a final agreement over on IMF-led reform program will in my opinion be highly improbable this year. Where this would mean is that in the best-case scenario, Lebanon could begin focusing on economic priorities only after a new president comes to office, whenever that occurs. What is unfortunate in this regard is that the government has reportedly advanced in its economic plan to take Lebanon out of its crisis. Recently, Deputy Prime Minister Saadeh Al Shami, who is playing a key role in negotiations with the IMF, stated that the technical aspects of the banking sector reform were completed. While this sounds as good news, several more months of continuing deadlock could have in my opinion a disastrous impact on the well-being of the Lebanese, and on banks in particular.

    Finally, a major factor that in my opinion will help define the period ahead is regional, political calculations. A number of Arab states have shown a renewed momentum in trying to certain Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon, which has made the party uneasy. This mood will not have been helped by the gains made by the Lebanese Forces in the election. The mainly Christian party has close ties with Saudi Arabia, which Hezbollah sees obviously as a threat.

    As the Arab states, especially the gulf states, reinforce their stakes in Lebanon, this in my opinion could lead to one of two possible outcomes. One is a struggle for influence with Iran in the country that is unlikely to come out with a clear winner. This can potentially bring about an eventual agreement to share influence. Alternatively, Hezbollah and Iran might try in some way to reimpose their hegemony. But this again would be risky, as the strength of the party’s cross-sectarian alliances have been eroded.

    The most likely outcome in my opinion is that Lebanon will remain at a standstill in the coming months, and perhaps even beyond that, as the two broad alignments neutralize each other in Parliament. Neither side will be able to overcome the other, and both sides will want to avoid a civil war.

    Meanwhile, as sad as it is, the Lebanese will continue to suffer as their political parties pursue clashing agendas, with in my opinion little concern for the population.