With parliamentary elections in Lebanon happening on May 15, opposition candidates are pushing hard to break through the sectarian-dominated status quo of Lebanese politics, capitalizing on a populace frustrated by factionalism, feuds, and corruption.
Many citizens have lost faith in the political establishment that has presided over the now years-long economic crisis that has engulfed their struggling country. More than 80 percent of the population lives in relative poverty as people struggle with soaring prices and crippling shortages.
“The traditional [parties] have pushed the country to bankruptcy; famine; all types of ills,” Tahalof Watani candidate Ziad Abichaker told Al Arabiya English. “There is a huge need for new blood and new leadership.”
“[We] want to prove to the ruling regime that regular citizens can run for the elections,” echoed Maguy Nanejian, Tahalof Watani. “It doesn't have to be exclusive to the political parties. Our battle today is to save the sovereignty in front of symbols who have neglected it.”
Despite enjoying much in the way of popular support, Lebanon's opposition parties have historically fared poorly at the ballot box. When lacking a unified political presence, voters are often left uncertain about what opposition candidates stand for in policy or political direction.
The Policy Initiative is an independent, non-profit think tank founded in 2021 to demystify Lebanon's often confusing political landscape.
“There's always been this vague atmosphere around the opposition groups, not knowing what the differences between them are,” said Nadim El Kak, a political sociologist, and researcher at The Policy Initiative. “A lot of them don't agree with their programs. We need to stop thinking of the opposition as a homogenous entity.”
In preparation for the upcoming elections, the organization surveyed the country's political parties, focusing on four key areas: internal organizational structure, strategies for political change, policy positions, and alliances.
"The traditionalists do not run on a program," explained Kak. "[They] run on slogans like loyalty; hope; faith; trust; fear. It's more emotion-driven because their MPs are not the ones who make legislation. These are things delegated to the heads of those parties [who] make decisions based on their foreign patrons, be it Western actors or Iran,” he said.
"The flip side of it, with the opposition, is that they'll focus on a more programmatic discourse," he continued. "If you have a different kind of electoral campaign, where you have a united oppositionist bloc with a coherent discourse and plan that is convincing to voters, that builds momentum [and can] create an opportunity."
Some policy areas show a high degree of correlation, and data collated by the organization shows different trends. For example, on the question of financial sector losses, most opposition groups favor a model paid exclusively by banks and large depositors. An overwhelming majority also support provisions for diversity and civil rights and allow Lebanese women to pass on citizenship to their children, which presently only Lebanese men can do.
Other positions are less consistent. Almost no consensus exists concerning the nationalization of Lebanese banks, the return of Syrian refugees to their own country, or Hezbollah's disarmament.
Jumping through hoops
Opposition groups face many obstacles. Electoral districts in Lebanon have a set number of seats distributed proportionally between the various religious sects present in each district. Rather than standing for individual seats, prospective candidates from different backgrounds must join together on electoral lists, competing for votes.
Initially conceived in the wake of the Lebanese Civil War, it was a transitional measure to alleviate tensions between the sects through power-sharing to eventually give way to a more secularized system.
Instead, the system has remained in place, allowing the established political elite to maintain a monopoly by squeezing out the competition.
"The way sectarian parties function is that they are ingrained [in] rural, communal family ties, and maintaining those same networks," explained Kak. "[This] means that the traditional parties can come together and ally on the same list, securing the totality of the seats,” he added.
"It's not that the Lebanese voters are naturally sectarian and are just voting for these people because there are from the same side," he noted. "Historically speaking, [it has been] sectarian parties and militias who guaranteed their protection during the Civil War and distributed food to them, paid their health care bills, sent their kids to school, helped them get jobs, and so on. They would rather just take what they can get at this point from those traditional parties."
Lebanese voters are also obligated to return to their families' hereditary districts to vote, reflecting demographics noted in outdated census data from the 1930s, which are no longer accurate but still inform modern sectarian seat allocations. It undermines local support for opposition candidates without a larger and more established sectarian party behind them to fall back on.
In response, many opposition candidates have instead focused on encouraging members of the Lebanese diaspora to register to vote in the elections. Almost 250,000 Lebanese abroad registered to cast their ballots, more than double the number from 2018. Of that quarter of a million registered, around 130,000 are reported to have voted.
"I believe that the diaspora is – in a way – marginalized in Lebanese society," said Verena El Amil, running with the Towards the State list. "Many of them were [forced] from their homeland due to the socio-economic problems we regularly face in Lebanon, leading them away from the typically conservative and sectarian narratives pushed by the current ruling class."
"A large percentage of expats are definitely going to be voting for the opposition," agreed Beirut Change list candidate Ibrahim Mneimneh.
Some Lebanese remain skeptical that the elections will bring about real change.
Lebanon's politics is often seen as a revolving collection of well-known faces, with the same leaders simply shuffling from one position to the next. Still, Kak encourages people not to give in to political apathy.
“Political change is a long-term process," said Kak. "Even if these elections in themselves do not lead to any concrete changes, they can be a building block. I think [this is] an opportunity for people to understand who these groups are, and to make choices on who they think best represents them, not for these elections necessarily, but going forward beyond that.”