BEIRUT—In a stone-walled living room in southern Lebanon’s Ibl al-Saqi village, newly minted Member of Parliament Elias Jarade brought together two voters for Turkish coffee on his living room couch—one who voted for him, the other against him—to settle a heated dispute over elections they had the day before.
“I was telling them, ‘We’re partners in this country, in this village, again. We’re a big family, and we have to stay together,’” the Harvard University-trained ophthalmologist, who ran independently with the new list Together for Change, said on Monday.
Jarade is now well placed to play the role of intermediary in a deeply divided country. The night before, he had defeated Assaad Hardan in Lebanon’s general elections, winning the Orthodox Christian seat for the South 3 electoral district. Hardan, a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Lebanon, had held the position for three decades. It was the first time an opposition candidate defeated an ally of the militant Iran-backed Hezbollah party in southern Lebanon, a longtime Hezbollah stronghold.
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Hardan’s loss is part of a larger trend in an election that took many analysts by surprise. Lebanon’s rulers—mainly warlords who came to power after the civil war ended in 1990—have maintained their grip on the country’s politics for decades by relying on followers who remain loyal for sectarian and ideological reasons. In the weeks leading up to the vote, observers feared the status quo would remain in place since independent, nonsectarian opposition parties lacked money and experience. Above all, these candidates lacked unity—several opposition coalitions ran against each other in the same districts. South 3 was the only one of 15 electoral districts with a unified opposition list.
The election marks a small but meaningful shift in Lebanon’s complex political landscape. Hezbollah and its allies have lost their majority in Parliament—securing only 61 seats out of 128, down from 71 in the country’s last elections in 2018. While this loss is unlikely to seriously weaken the party’s military and political power in Lebanon, 14 anti-establishment independent candidates also reached Parliament—13 more than in 2018—showing clear resentment toward the main sectarian parties. As of now, the win is merely symbolic. But later, if the opposition forms a bloc in Parliament, it could swing legislation to enact laws that benefit regular citizens rather than sectarian leaders.
The results reflect the anger ignited in Lebanon’s 2019 mass uprisings, which were triggered by a financial collapse that protesters blamed on corrupt politicians and the country’s sectarian divisions. The largest wound in Lebanon’s collapse was the August 2020 Beirut port blast, the largest nonnuclear explosion in history, which killed more than 215 people and was widely blamed on government negligence. In June 2021, the World Bank described Lebanon as facing one of the world’s worst financial crises, and today, 75 percent of Lebanese live in poverty. For those who protested in 2019, the election results are a silver lining in a country that has known nothing but political deadlock and hardship for the past three and a half years.
Election day was not without its challenges. As in 2018, voting was marred by inadequately trained polling staff, widespread intimidation, electricity issues, and fraud. According to a May 17 report by the European Union’s election observation mission, the elections “were overshadowed by widespread practices of vote buying and clientelism, which distorted the level playing field and seriously affected the voters’ choice.”
The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections recorded 95 acts of violence in and around polling stations, including physical attacks on journalists. These were mainly documented in the southern districts where Hezbollah and Amal Movement partisans attacked election observers. In the southern village of Ansar, dozens of Hezbollah supporters beat and kicked video journalist Hussein Bassal while he was documenting violations, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Additionally, this year, the interior ministry, which suffers from a lack of funds, resorted to sending a 45-minute training video for the 15,000 polling employees instead of training in-person.
The result was inadequate implementation of voting procedures on Sunday, said elections specialist Maroun Sfeir. “You see them not being very comfortable with the procedures,” he said. “That was quite obvious and further impacted the process during the counting.”
Throughout the country, traditional parties tried to maintain a grip on voters by offering them financial bribes, sandwiches, transportation, and other favors—all of which can make a big difference in a country where people must vote where their male ancestors are from, as opposed to where they actually live, forcing millions to perform an election day pilgrimage across the country to cast their ballots.
“With the economic circumstances, many will not vote unless someone will pay for their transportation, which is allowed by the law,” said Nizar Rammal, a Shiite candidate in the South 3 district who lost his race, speaking over the phone last week before the election. He described the process as indirect bribing by the ruling class.
Furthermore, there was widespread abstention, which might have contributed to anti-establishment candidates’ success. While the Lebanese diaspora voted a week early with a turnout of around 60 percent, the country’s residents did not follow suit. Just over 49 percent voted, according to the final interior ministry figures, on par with the 2018 turnout.
In Beirut, a Sunni stronghold, supporters of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who stepped down from politics earlier this year, boycotted the vote—the first time in decades the Future Movement, the largest Sunni party, abstained. Instead, they set up bright inflatable pools, where adults and children splashed in the open. Analysts say the major gap allowed the opposition to grab Sunni seats in Beirut and Tripoli, in addition to several other breakthroughs, including Jarade’s win in the south.