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Lebanon - Political Parties

Lebanese political institutions often play a secondary role to highly confessionalized personality-based politics. Powerful families also still play an independent role in mobilizing votes for both local and parliamentary elections. Nonetheless, a lively panoply of domestic political parties, some even predating independence, still exists. The largest are all confessionally based. Until 1990, seats in parliament were divided on a six-to-five ratio of Christians to Muslims (with Druze counted as Muslims). With the Ta'if Agreement, the ratio changed to half and half. But 27 percent of the population are Sunni Muslim and 27 percent Shia Muslim, two factions that are in competitino, while the Christian population is divided among 21 percent Maronite Christian, 8 percent Greek Orthodox, 4 percent Greek Catholic, with the remaining 7 percent belonging to smaller Christian denominations [another 5 percent are Druze].

The Kataeb (Phalange), National Bloc, National Liberal Party, Lebanese Forces, and Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) are overwhelmingly Christian parties. Amal and Hizballah are the main rivals for the organized Shia vote, while the PSP (Progressive Socialist Party) is the leading Druze party. In addition to domestic parties, there are branches of pan-Arab secular parties (Ba'ath, socialist and communist parties) that were active in the 1960s and throughout the period of civil war.

In the 2005 parliamentary elections, factions included:

  • an anti-Syrian coalition ("March 14"), led by Saad Hariri's predominantly Sunni Future Movement and allied with Druze leader Jumblatt
  • the Qornet Shehwan coalition of center-right Christian politicians, Samir Geagea's mostly Maronite Lebanese Forces, and Elias Attallah's Democratic Left secular movement

By 2006 the tug-of-war between March 14 and March 8 was deepening the splits among Lebanese Christians. Samir Ja'ja's Lebanese Forces were the most firmly in the March 14 camp, having laid down the gauntlet to Michel Aoun in Ja'ja's September 24 speech in Harissa. However, the LF lacked the financial resources of other players. The Kata'eb Party achieved a historic reunification after years of infighting and is struggling to redefine its position. While favoring a political solution to Hizballah's arms, Kata'eb went further than any Christian group, other than the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), in legitimizing the "resistance weapons."

The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of General Michel Aoun was so closely identified with its leader, as every Lebanese party was, that should Aoun have to retire from politics, his top officials could drift off to other movements or new ones, or destroy each other by fighting over Aoun's legacy. The Free Patriotic Movement lacked not only party institutions but also, increasingly, public support.

As of 2012 Lebanon's political scene was dominated by two major coalitions, and a few independent groups:

  • The 14 March Coalition includes anti-Syrian and "pro-Western" parties: Democratic Left [Ilyas ATALLAH]; Democratic Renewal Movement [Nassib LAHUD]; Future Movement Bloc [Sa'ad al-HARIRI]; Kataeb Party [Amine GEMAYEL]; Lebanese Forces [Samir JA'JA]; Tripoli Independent Bloc
  • The 8 March Coalition is made up of Shi'ite parties Hezbollah and Amal and their mainly Christian allies. Development and Resistance Bloc [Nabih BERRI, leader of Amal Movement]; Free Patriotic Movement [Michel AWN]; Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc [Mohammad RA'AD] (includes Hizballah [Hassan NASRALLAH]); Nasserite Popular Movement [Usama SAAD]; Popular Bloc [Elias SKAFF]; Syrian Ba'th Party [Sayez SHUKR]; Syrian Social Nationalist Party [Ali QANSO]; Tashnaq [Hovig MEKHITIRIAN]
  • Independents include the Democratic Gathering Bloc [Walid JUNBLATT, leader of Progressive Socialist Party]; and Metn Bloc [Michel MURR]

Lebanon held its first parliamentary election in nine years on Sunday 06 May 2018, with candidates vying for 128 seats that were divided among 11 religious groups according to a strict sectarian power-sharing system. The vote for the 128-seat parliament was held according to a complex new law that had redrawn constituencies and replaced a winner-takes-all system with a proportional one. The seats are divided according to a sectarian quota.

  1. Hezbollah is the most powerful groups in Lebanon. It was founded in 1982 by Irans Revolutionary Guards and is deemed a terrorist group by the United States. It has grown even more powerful since 2012 as a key player in the Syrian war, fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah entered parliament for the first time in the 1990s. It also has ministers in government.
  2. Future is led by Saad al-Hariri, Lebanons leading Sunni and prime minister since 2016. Hariri took on his political role after his father Rafik al-Hariri was assassinated in 2005. The early years of his political career were defined by confrontation with the heavily armed Shiite group Hezbollah. A U.N.-backed court later charged five Hezbollah members over the Hariri killing. The group denied any role. Hariri still opposed the Iran-backed Hezbollah but these days said its arsenal is an issue that is bigger than Lebanon and should be solved through regional dialogue. His focus was now on reviving and reforming the moribund economy. The Western-backed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, Lebanons leading Sunni, was battling to limit losses he was expected to suffer in the first parliamentary election in nine years. He was nevertheless expected to form the next government.
  3. The Free Patriotic Movement [FPM] was established by Maronite Christian politician Michel Aoun, a former army commander who led one of two rival governments in the final years of the 1975-90 civil war. Aoun became president in 2016 as part of the political deal that made Hariri prime minister. The FPM is led by Aouns son-in-law, Gebran Bassil and is allied to Hezbollah.
  4. The Shiite Amal Movement was a civil war adversary of Hezbollah but has been closely aligned with the group since the conflict ended. It is led by Nabih Berri, who has been speaker of parliament since 1992. Amal also has close ties to Assad.
  5. The Progressive Socialist Party [PSP] is led by Walid Jumblatt, the strongest figure in the Lebanese Druze minority. Jumblatt inherited his role from his assassinated father, Kamal, and was a prominent civil war leader. Jumblatt is in the process of handing authority to his son, Taymour, who is running in his place in the election.
  6. The Christian Lebanese Forces [LF] led by Maronite Christian politician Samir Geagea emerged from a powerful civil war militia by the same name. Geagea led the LF through the final years of the war after the 1982 assassination of Bashir Gemayel, its founder. Geagea, the only Lebanese militia leader to serve jail time over civil war violence, is the most significant Christian opponent of Hezbollah.
  7. The Kateab, also known as the Phalange Party, is led by Maronite Christian politician Sami Gemayel, the youngest son of late president-elect Bachir Gemayel, killed in 1982. He took over the leadership from his father, former President Amin Gemayel, and his grandfather Pierre Gemayel, who founded the Phalangist (Kataeb) Party. Sami Gemayel moved to the fore after the assassination of his brother, Pierre, in 2006 during a wave of killings targeting opponents of Syrian influence in Lebanon.
  8. Marada is led by Maronite Christian politician Suleiman Franjieh, a close Hezbollah ally and a friend of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hariri initially backed Franjieh for the presidency in 2016 but the deal did not gain wider backing. Instead, Hariri struck the deal that made Aoun head of state.

There are differences both between and among Muslim and Christian parties regarding the role of religion in state affairs. There is a very high degree of political activism among religious leaders across the sectarian spectrum. The interplay for position and power among the religious, political, and party leaders and groups produces a political tapestry of extraordinary complexity.

In pluralistic societies, patronage is often a common feature of the political process; the promotion of the interests of a particular sect is frequently widespread. Although patronage is prevalent in developed and lesser developed countries alike, clientelism may be more entrenched in Lebanon than in most other nations. The pervasiveness of this system in Lebanon is easily traced to feudal times, wherein the overlord allowed peasants and their families the use of land in exchange for unquestioned loyalty. In more recent times, this social system has been translated into a political system; the overlord has become a political leader, or zaim, the peasants have become his constituents, and, instead of land, favors are exchanged for electoral loyalty. And although clientelism has its roots in the rural areas, it now pervades towns and large citites down to the neighborhood level.

A zaim is a political leader, and rather than being exclusively an officeholder, he may be a power broker with the ability to manipulate elections and the officials he helps elect. Accordingly, wastah-- the ability to attain access to a power broker--is widely sought, but only achieved at some price.

There are those who believe that at the local level zuama clientelism may have reduced sectarian strife. Often, political competition was intrasectarian, rather than with members of different groups. And because only some of Lebanon's electoral districts were confessionally homogeneous (although most had a certain sectarian preponderance), a candidate often could not be elected unless he were supported by other confessional groups within his district. Once elected, however, the opportunity to augment his power was great. To ensure that constituents continued their support, zuama have been known to employ qabadayat, or enforcers, whose job it was to see that their chiefs were warmly supported at the polls or to discourage opponents from voting. In fact, in the post-World War II years, many zuama developed their own militias to safeguard their interests, often against rivals within their own sect. The development of these militias led to tragedy during the 1975 Civil War when these private armies were turned loose on members of opposing sects.

Another component of the Lebanese patronage system is the important role of family. The position of zaim is frequently hereditary, and politics is often treated like a family business. For example, almost one-fourth of the members of the 1960 Chamber of Deputies were the descendants of men who had been appointed to the legislative assemblies under the French Mandate. Furthermore, it was not uncommon for more than one member of the same family to hold office in the same government; for example, four different members of the Sulh family have held the position of prime minister. In the 1970s and 1980s, Amin Jumayyil (the Phalange Party), Dani Shamun (the National Liberal Party), and Walid Jumblatt (the Progressive Socialist Party) inherited their fathers' political mantles. Occasionally, the family of a zaim would control an entire sect, as the Asad clan did over the Shias of southern Lebanon in the first half of the twentieth century.

Thus, Lebanon's constitutionally based political system had to be viewed through the overlay of clientelism, a system that had persisted in one form or another for over a hundred years. Even so, this system, although unlikely to disappear in the near term, perhaps was being challenged by a post-1975 Civil War development: the rise of the militias. Although some militias were still controlled by descendants of traditional zuama, others, like Amal, Hizballah (Party of God), and the Lebanese Forces, were led by figures who had arrived relatively late on the political scene. These militias were not just military organizations; through military force they often gained control of revenues that formerly went to government coffers. In this way, by controlling armed might and the purse, the militias were appropriating the basic stock-in-trade of the traditional zaim system. The patronclient relationship, therefore, rather than dying out may merely have taken one more turn along an evolutionary track.

Historically, political parties in Lebanon have lacked traits common to parties in most Western democracies. Lebanese parties often have had no ideology, have devised no programs, and have made little effort at transcending sectarian support. In fact, despite their claims, most parties have been thinly disguised political machines for a particular confession or, more often, a specific zaim. Although nondescript, broad titles have been applied, such as National Bloc Party or Progressive Socialist Party. With the exception of a handful of left-wing movements, most parties have been the organizational personification of a few powerful politicians.

Even Kamal Jumblatt (also seen as Junblatt), the most ideologically oriented of the zuama, derived his constituents' support principally because he was a Druze leader, not because of his political beliefs. For this reason, any one party could count on only a few votes in the Chamber of Deputies. This situation brought about a continuous stream of coalitions, each often created to represent a point of view on a particular issue. In this system, leaders could not even rely on the support of their coreligionists; in fact, some of the most severe acrimony has been intrasectarian. Nonetheless, in the face of challenges to fundamental issues--such as the six-to-five formula or the pan-Arab question--the various confessionally based parties generally closed ranks.

Before and during the 1975 Civil War, other political groupings were formed. Although ideology played some role in their formation, for the most part these alliances--the Lebanese National Movement and the Lebanese Front--tended to be temporary associations of politically motivated militias under the leadership of powerful zuama, and divisions generally followed sectarian lines. So ephemeral were these associations, however, that after the heaviest fighting of the mid- and late 1970s ceased, several of the groups in these coalitions turned their guns on each other.

Nonetheless, ideology, rather than the power and charisma of a zaim, has been the basis for the formation of a small number of political parties. These multisectarian groups have espoused causes ranging from Marxism to pan-Arabism. To a limited extent, several of these essentially leftist parties also participated in the fighting of the 1970s. By 1987 political parties, in the sense of constitutionally legitimate groups seeking office, had almost become an anachronism. By virtue of armed strength, the various militias, surrogate armies, and foreign defense forces that controlled the nation had divided Lebanon into several semi autonomous "cantons," each having its own political, social, and economic structure.

The Taif Agreement of 1989 marked the beginning of the end of the war. In January of that year, a committee appointed by the Arab League, chaired by Kuwait and including Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco, had begun to formulate solutions to the conflict, leading to a meeting of Lebanese parliamentarians in Taif, Saudi Arabia, where they agreed to the national reconciliation accord in October. In August 1990, parliament and the new President agreed on constitutional amendments embodying some of the political reforms envisioned at Taif. The National Assembly expanded to 128 seats and was divided equally between Christians and Muslims (with Druze counted as Muslims).

Parliamentary elections were held in 2005 and the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition -- led by Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri's son--won a majority of 72 seats (out of 128). Hariri ally and former Finance Minister Fouad Siniora was named Prime Minister and Nabih Berri was reelected as Speaker of Parliament. Parliament approved the first "made-in-Lebanon" cabinet in almost 30 years on July 30. The ministerial statement of the new cabinet (which included two Hizballah ministers), a summary of the new government's agenda and priorities, focused on political and economic reform, but also endorsed Hizballah's right to possess military weapons to carry out a "national resistance" against the perceived Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory.

Parliamentary elections were held in 2009, under the new electoral law mandated by the Doha Agreement. While the new electoral law maintained the Taif Agreements division of parliamentary seats equally between Christians and Muslims, it also divided Lebanon into 26 electoral districts and mandated that elections be held on a single day, rather than consecutive weekends.

Hizballah ally and Free Patriotic Movement [Maronite Christian Phalange] leader Michel Aoun exemplified the tedious complexity of Lebanese politics. While his support had dropped since its 2005 peak, Michel Aoun remained the most popular Christian political leader in Lebanon. In 2008 opinion polls, Aoun receives support from about 40 percent of the Christian population - the highest percentage of any Christian leader, but not a majority. This is a considerable drop from 2005 when he probably could count on 60-70 percent of the Christians. "Aounies" are frequently spotted in large caravans traversing streets, clad in orange, waving banners, and honking their signature car horn chant.

Often described as being mentally unstable, the opportunistic Aoun's highest popularity ratings in the country of any Christian politician, but that is balanced by one of the highest negative ratings as well. Aoun is infamous for picking the wrong side of issues -- as PM and interim (acting) head of State, he continued to support Saddam Hussein after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and he opposed the Taif accord that even the Patriarch accepted.

His polling numbers remained high in spite of actions that could have diminished his support, particularly among Lebanese Christians. These include partnering with Hizballah in 2006 and obstructing agreement on electing a consensus president in 2007. Aoun gained his popularity while serving as a successful army commander during the 1975-90 civil war, leading the army in fighting against Syrians, Palestinians, and the Lebanese Forces Christian militia. Many of his supporters have remained steadfast since that time and they give Aoun the benefit of the doubt in all he does. Other factors that boost his support include a fear among his supporters of Sunni domination, Aoun's reputation as an advocate against corruption, and his skills at shifting blame onto his political opponents in the pro-government March 14 coalition.

Possible threats to Aoun's popularity among Christians were an election of Lebanese Armed Forces Commander Michel Sleiman as president, since many Christians might look to him as a better Christian alternative, and better messaging and unity among March 14 leaders. In fact, Suleiman was elected 12th president of Lebanon on May 25, 2008. In his famous fiery televised speeches, Aoun calls for good governance, transparency and democracy, and discusses issues that matter to the people, such as electricity and the economy. After decades of suffering under corrupt leaders, many Lebanese find Aoun's criticisms of corruption appealing. As in most cult-like groups, Aounies simply reject the well-documented evidence of Aoun's own corruption, including use of public monies for private gain.



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