Explained | Hezbollah and the 2022 Lebanese general elections  

Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters. File.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters. File. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: Final results of the Lebanese national election released on Tuesday, May 17, showed that the political wing of the Iran-backed Shia militia Hezbollah and its allies lost their majority in Lebanon’s parliament.

Hezbollah, along with supporting political factions won 62 of the parliament’s 128 seats, as opposed to a majority of 71 seats they had secured in the last election held in 2018. Hezbollah’s opponents, including the Saudi-aligned Lebanese Forces—a Christian faction—gained ground in this election.

In a major development, political newcomers—the anti-establishment candidates who had gained prominence in the October 2019 popular movement against the government—managed to win over a dozen seats this election in comparison with just one seat in the previous one.

Lebanon’s historical context

Lebanon is a country in the eastern Mediterranean, with Israel bordering its south and Syria on its northern and eastern border. It has a 1.5-million refugee population from Syria, besides a permanent Palestinian presence.

It got its independence from the French mandate in 1943, but there was dissatisfaction as the Maronite Christian community had achieved more development during the French rule in contrast with the Muslim sects. The country’s new leaders signed a national pact to divide power among major religious groups.

However, Lebanon’s independent government was unable to govern the different religious groups, leading to the formation of religious militias. Besides, the country had a huge population of Palestinian refugees in camps, which also housed fighters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The religious groups were again divided on the Palestinian presence, with Christian ones against it and the leftists and Muslims ones in support. The religious factions descended into fierce fighting, leading to the Lebanese civil war in 1975 that lasted till 1990. Meanwhile in 1982, Israel invaded southern Lebanon to drive out the PLO and counter the large Syrian military presence. The war also brought in Western involvement, including from the United States; the United Nations also sent forces to Lebanon.

The war ended with the signing of the Taif Agreement in Saudi Arabia, which was meant to facilitate the sovereignty of South Lebanon by the withdrawal of Israeli forces and the placement of Lebanon under Syria’s guardianship. The Accord also ordered the disbandment of all militias that were formed during the war except for the Hezbollah. According to Lebanon’s post-civil war Constitution, the country’s President would be a Maronite Christian, Prime Minister a Sunni and Parliament Speaker, Shia. The Druze religious community in Lebanon also has a small share in power.

Who is Hezbollah?

Hezbollah is a Shia Muslim militia largely based in Lebanon and backed by Iran. It emerged during the Lebanese civil war with the aim of driving out the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) from Lebanon and countering Western influences. It was inspired by Iran’s Shia theocratic leadership and adopted the name Hezbollah, meaning “The Party of God”. Iran, meanwhile, wanting to propagate its Shia influence in the Arab world, provided funding, arms, and training to the militia.

To further its objective, Hezbollah carried out several attacks on Israeli, and Western civilian and military targets. In 1983, Hezbollah bombed the capital city Beirut’s U.S Embassy, killing over 60 people. Later that year, it attacked barracks housing U.S and French troops in Beirut, claiming 300 lives. The militia continued its attacks on U.S, Jewish and Israeli targets, and eventually targeted its own country’s administration in 2005. Hezbollah was implicated in the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 in a car bombing in Beirut. The attack also killed 21 others. Mr. Hariri’s assassination gave rise to the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, a peaceful civic resistance to drive out Syrian influence and military from the country and hold free elections.

As for Israel, it withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 but the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel continued. The two got into a month-long war in 2006, with Hezbollah firing thousands of rockets into Israel.

Hezbollah, an ally of Syria, made attempts to keep the latter’s forces in the country in 2005 but failed. In 2011, when Syria descended into war, Hezbollah got involved alongside Iran and Russia, to support the Bashar-al-Assad regime. It sent fighters and arms in large numbers to Syria to fight the Sunni rebel groups.

Read | Why Hezbollah might be losing ground in Lebanon

The U.S has designated Hezbollah as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO), and its armed wing or the whole outfit is blacklisted by multiple countries. Its current leader is Lebanese cleric Hassan Nasrallah, who took over after his predecessor Secretary-General Abbas Musawi was killed by the IDF in 1992. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates from 2020, Hezbollah maintains nearly 20,000 fighters and the same number of weapons reserves. As per 2019 U.S. State Department data, Hezbollah receives $700 million worth of weaponry and other support from Iran each year.

The group entered Lebanese politics in 1992 and has held parliament positions since 2005. In the 2018 election, it won 13 seats, and 71 in total along with allies. Currently running a political party, a militia, and a social services network of schools, hospitals, and youth programmes, Hezbollah has been described by the Centre for Foreign Relations as a “state within a state”.

The political and economic backdrop of the current elections

Since the last general election in 2018, a lot has happened in Lebanon. Popular protests in 2019 triggered the resignation of the country’s Sunni Prime Minister Saad-al-Hariri who had Saudi Arabia’s backing. Prompted by economic decline, mismanagement, power and water shortages, and especially a $6 monthly tax on WhatsApp users, the protesters demanded an end to “corruption” and the resignation of the country’s powerful elite.

The movement also demanded an overhaul of Lebanon’s government system which reserves administrative powers for major sectarian groups. With the various religious powers garnering foreign backing—Christians getting support from France, Sunnis from Saudi, and Shias and Hezbollah from Iran, the protesters believed that the leaders were more concerned about their friends and patrons abroad than addressing more pressing civic and administrative issues at home. The demonstrators demanded a new secular, democratic political order.

This was followed by a devastating blast at the Beirut port in August 2020, one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history that killed more than 200 people and injured about 7,000 others. It was estimated to have caused damage worth $15 billion.

Amid mounting public anger after the blast, Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who took charge after the 2019 protests, announced his resignation. Lebanon could not form a government for 13 months, with two Prime Minister designates—Mustapha Adib and Saad Hariri— attempting to stake claim but failing eventually. In September 2021, billionaire and telecom tycoon Najib Mikati became the Prime Minister of the country.

The 2019 economic downturn went on to become a near-total economic collapse, marked by medicine, food and fuel shortages, and rising crimes. The Lebanese central bank stated that it could no longer finance fuel imports at subsidised rates citing depleted reserves. Fuel shortages led to chaotic scenes across the country. UNICEF warned that millions of Lebanese were facing a severe water shortage. The economic crisis pushed more than half the population into poverty, while the value of Lebanon’s currency fell by 90%. While its GDP stood at $55 billion, the national debt was nearly 150% of GDP. According to the World Bank, Lebanon’s GDP per capita fell by 40% in dollar terms between 2018 and 2020.

In 2021, the Lebanese pound continued its slide, plunging to a new low of 15,000 to the U.S. dollar on the black market. Multiple economists have described Lebanon’s economic collapse as a ‘self-inflicted’ one, owing to corruption and mismanagement by its leaders and the central bank. Experts say Lebanon’s financial system is akin to a nationally regulated Ponzi scheme, where new money is borrowed to pay existing creditors, which only works till new money runs out.

Who contested the election and who won?

The turnout in this election for which voting took place on Sunday, May 15, was said to be at 41% — less than the 49% in the last election.

Despite losing their majority, Hezbollah and its main Shia ally, the Amal group of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, are likely to retain the 27 seats allocated to the sect as per the country’s political system.

Hezbollah’s Christian ally—President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) was overtaken by its traditional Christian opponent, the Saudi-backed Lebanese Forces.

Independents, seeking to overhaul the system, gained over 12 seats, while also managing to dislodge several longtime politicians from Parliament, including Hezbollah-allied Druze politician Talal Arslan.

Political observers have said that the elections are not likely to bring about a breakthrough in the Lebanon crisis. The results have left the Parliament further fragmented into several camps, none of which have a majority, raising the prospect of political paralysis and tensions that could delay reforms needed to steer the country out of its devastating economic crisis.

Meanwhile, Lebanon has been in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) this year to unlock funding of $3 billion over the next several years, along with an economic reform plan to pull the country out of the crisis. This, however, comes with the precondition that Lebanon should manage to form a stable government.

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Printable version | May 19, 2022 5:29:10 pm |