From now on Hezbollah will play a more decisive role in Lebanese politics, much to the chagrin of western powers. The party and its allies made significant gains in this week’s parliamentary elections, with its leader Hassan Nasrallah calling the results a political and moral victory.
While the number of Hezbollah MPs will remain largely the same, its political allies did well, ensuring that together they won more than half the seats in parliament. This cements Hezbollah's role in the Lebanese government as the strongest political power in the country.
It is a watershed moment in terms of the future direction of the country. It was a long overdue election after nine years, and the new system of proportional representation was a true test of each party’s support on the ground.
Hezbollah and its bloc will be the decisive factor in the next parliament, and Prime Minister Saad Hariri will be forced to compromise with them. While Hezbollah proved wrong any doubts about support from its base, Hariri’s party lost a third of its seats, making him no longer the unquestionable leader of the Sunnis.
The ripple effects of the election results will be felt across the region, as analysts will depict the result as indicative of Iran’s regional clout, given its backing of Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia and the US will be irked as they threw their support behind Hariri in an attempt to influence the outcome of the elections. At the end of the day, Lebanon is a microcosm of regional rivalries, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future.
Hezbollah’s strong showing in the Lebanese election might have also feed into the US decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal this week, as there is a perceived need on the part of Iran’s foes to urgently counter its regional influence. Scaring off potential investment in Iran and imposing harsh economic sanctions are ways to punish not only the Iranian government, but Hezbollah which is viewed as its regional proxy.
Unlike the 2009 elections when US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and vice-president Joe Biden visited Lebanon and virtually campaigned for Hariri, (suggesting US aid would be tied to the outcome), this time the US role in influencing the election was more circumspect. But the results will be unsatisfactory to the Trump administration and Israel, which have Tehran and its allies in their cross-hairs. It remains to be seen whether it will be harder for Lebanon to secure much-needed aid and loans from the US at a time when its economy is in dire straits.
Saudi Arabia is unlikely to destabilise the Lebanese economy by withdrawing its investments as it will only backfire on their preferred candidate, Hariri, who is also a Saudi citizen and remains prime minister. Saudi Arabia will probably endeavour to try to win the hearts and minds of Lebanese through its continuing largesse.
But Hariri’s waning political fortunes must have come as a shock to his backers. His party no longer remains the largest in parliament, and his significant losses indicate that many voters have realigned their support which traditionally went to Hariri, to Sunni allies of Hezbollah. As part of his campaign, he had vociferously criticised Hezbollah for its failure to comply with the government’s dissociation policy towards regional conflicts, and for verbally attacking Arab countries. The message did not seem to resonate with voters, given the shift in alliances.
Nasrallah has claimed that the election results were a vindication of his party’s actions in the region, both in Syria and elsewhere. He believes it vindicates Hezbollah’s need to maintain a weapons stockpile so that it can remain a bulwark against US and Israeli aggression.
Hezbollah reads the new votes from Sunnis as support for its resistance, which was not so popular with the electorate five years ago. Hezbollah’s collective forces in Lebanon and the region are considered more powerful than those of the state, making it a force to be reckoned with.
But more than Hezbollah’s geo-political positioning, what has really changed is its commitment to become more involved in domestic Lebanese politics. For the first time in an election campaign, Hezbollah had a detailed and comprehensive programme which centres on protecting the resistance, maintaining its independence and providing for the community. This represents an expanded domestic agenda which will focus on service delivery and development for the good of the people.
For the past 15 to 20 years, Hezbollah’s primary focus was on fighting Israel and Islamic State in the region, but it wants to develop a wider participation in policy making. Throughout the campaign, Nasrallah made reference to economic strategies and the need to alleviate Lebanon’s debt and fight corruption. Moving beyond just being a bulwark against aggression, Hezbollah is seeking to become the defender of Lebanon’s broader national interests.
* Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor.