Lebanon: Captive Voters And Political Paralysis – OpEd


With a deadlocked parliament incapable of forming a government or electing a President amidst an economic meltdown the World Bank calls one of the worst in 150 years, only a new governance model can save it from perpetual stalemate. 

To a bitterly exhausted populace reeling from an economy in near free fall, its currency losing 90 percent of its value in over two years and as a corollary plunging more than half of its nearly 6 million inhabitants into abject poverty, an electoral opportunity to alter their political and economic plight was always welcome. 

Moreover, it came on the heels of a calamitous port explosion that killed over 200 people,[1] injuring and rendering homeless thousands of others, inflicting billions of dollars in material damage, and all the while witnessing powerful political figures stalling avenues for public inquiry stemming from what they deemed as suspicious practices by the investigating judge.[2] 

Yet, despite the hopes of many, the outcome of last year’s parliamentary elections in Lebanon not only changed very little but also saw the incumbent political system remain firmly intact.[3] 

And so, it was hardly surprising that when the time for the 128-seat parliament to elect a new President came to fruition in October last year, what has ensued until this very day and at least a dozen failed attempts later, is nothing but political vacuum that has rendered the state to a caretaker cabinet with no head of state to approve the cabinets formation or even the office of the Prime Minister itself. 

Anything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong. 

Web Of Intransigence 

To understand Lebanon is to acknowledge that the results of any election can only ever make minimal alterations in the overall balance of power. 

This is because the country is run on the premise of a quota based, unwritten, sectarianized power-sharing agreement known as al-mithaq al-watani or National Pact,[4] which is itself a derivative of an outdated consensus rather than a pillar of a majoritarian ruling system. 

In theory, it guarantees the representation of all major sects or confessions and is spearheaded by a sectarianized ruling troika. 

In practice, the troika is allotted power in the form of the Presidency being vested in a Maronite Christian, the Premiership to a Sunni Muslim, and the least significant Parliamentary Speakership to a Shiite Muslim – despite the latter long being widely acknowledged as the single biggest sect in the country. 

But it’s exactly because of this convoluted and diminished form of governance prevailing, that with the exception of Islamist movement Hizbullah which remains a continuous recipient of exogenous support from regional powerhouse Iran, an inevitable descent into a network of clientelist brokerage, patronage, the distributing of favours and financial incentives to respective constituents, a dependency on pervasive corruption and protection from state accountability, has intertwined with central institutional modes of daily exchange and interaction.[5] 

This has not only led to an erosion of centralized state authority, but it also ensures fragmented parliaments that regularly contribute to decision-making paralysis. 

Thus, even something as fundamentally crucial as finding consensus to elect a head of state, invariably turns into an arduous and intractable affair as political representatives venture to elect a President affiliated to a specific political camp regardless of any dysfunctional effect such vacuum has on political governance. 

The Road Ahead 

As both the aftermath of the last election and the turmoil that preceded it made clear, even on their empty stomachs the Lebanese people were not prepared to shed blood and feathers in order to derail the prevailing political system. 

To do so, would have awakened the ghosts of civil war. 

But if the country’s sectarian leaders, buoyed up by this decadent and corrupt political system in which they’ve become self-anointed links between their community and the state, continue to indulge only in what they want and by definition their constituents suffer that which they must, it becomes abundantly clear that only the riddance of this system along with its chequered history of unwritten agreements and under-the-table deals — is the solution. 

Despite the myriad of challenges such a prospect is fraught with, it hardly amounts to a distant cry since a sectarian-free political order is intrinsic to the spirit of Lebanon’s basic governing frameworks. 

The country’s first constitution adopted in 1926[6] and the post-war Taif agreement of 1989, respectively call for confessional elimination as a basic national goal and the venturing for parliamentary elections in an entirely non-sectarian manner.[7] 

As such, Lebanon needs to expeditiously proclaim a constitution that is affirmed by and reflects the aspirations of its current society irrespective of any sectarian contentions or spoilages. 

It can no longer be one that is beholden to historical fears of communal marginalisation, but rather sensitive to modern political realities and the need to ensure a one-man-one-vote system where its people vote en masse irrespective of their confessional or religious affiliations. 

It must be a constitution that ensures communities will rely on the largess of the state – not sectarian leaders – for their basic needs and services, and one that cannot be broken in letter or spirit after every heated exchange between influential politico-sectarian groups. 

Only then can the Lebanese republic emerge from its historic quagmire of intractability and in turn facilitate state integrity and rule by democratic consensus; one that is finally free of the sectarian sensitivities that have now brought it to the verge of collapse. 

*Mohammad I. Aslam, Fellow, Royal Asiatic Society (GB), Associate Fellow, Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, King’s College London London, UK


[1] Al Jazeera Staff, Infographic: How big was the Beirut Port Explosion? Infographic: How big was the Beirut explosion? | Infographic News | Al Jazeera, 4th August 2022. 

[2] See, for example, Zoulfikar Daher, About Tarek Bitar’s Suspicious Practices – Al-Manar TV Lebanon (almanar.com.lb), 5th February, 2023. 

[3] 2022 Lebanese Parliamentary Elections: Key Results | United Nations Development Programme (undp.org) 

[4] Kemal A. Faruki, ‘The National Covenant of Lebanon: Its Genesis’, Vol. 27, No.3, (Third Quarter, 1974), pp.19-31, Pakistan Institute of International Affairs. 

[5] See, for example, Reinoud Leenders, Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State-Building in Postwar Lebanon. Published by Cornell University Press, 2012; Melanie Cammett and Sukriti Issar, ‘Bricks and Mortar Clientalism: Sectarianism and the Logics of Welfare Allocation in Lebanon’, 62(3), pp. 381-421, (2010), World Politics. 

[6] Lebanon’s 1926 Constitution: http://www.presidency.gov.lb

[7] The Taif Agreement (un.int)

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