By now, everyone has seen the spontaneous protests that have broken out all over Lebanon out of frustration with the failures of the ruling class and dire economic conditions perhaps heretofore unseen. Prime Minister Saad Hariri has resigned and the country nervously awaits the formation of an interim technocratic government.
The hard-core protesters, however, want more: they demand new parliamentary elections within 6 months. Lebanon’s civil society activists would savor the chance to prove themselves as a credible political force after their very disappointing result in last year’s elections, in which not even a handful of anti-establishment candidates won seats.
So what might be in store if Lebanon went to the polls again? Would the establishment finally be defeated, given the anger on the street? When we look at the numbers in detail and speculate on what could be possible in a best-case scenario, using the helpful analysis prepared by UNDP’s Lebanon Electoral Assistance Project, we learn a great deal about the prospect for change and the endgame of the protests.
Start with voter turnout, which in 2018 was just under 50%, but with extreme variation over the 15 districts. While most of the districts had voter turnout quite close the average, there were curious outliers: The eastern part of Beirut had only 33% turnout, while the northern district of Jbeil-Keserwan had double that — an eye-popping 67% turnout.
Considering that only half of the voters turned out on average, let us assume that these are mostly the predictable supporters of various political parties, as about 90% of the votes cast went to establishment politicians and their lists, which are mostly sectarian in nature. (Lebanon’s political system divides the 128 seats in parliament 64/64 between Christians and Muslims, and then further by the various denominations within each religion, so politicians who purportedly speak loudly on behalf of their coreligionists tend to capture those votes). The remaining 10% of votes cast for change-oriented, usually secular forces of course do not equate to 10% of the seats in parliament because Lebanon’s 2018 Electoral Law, like all proportional representation models, has a minimum threshold, which only a few candidates managed to pass.
In most proportional systems, the threshold is a nationwide one for an entire party list, and it’s usually around 4 or 5%. In Lebanon, however, the threshold is calculated uniquely for each of the 15 districts: the total valid votes cast divided by its number of seats. For example, if 90,000 valid votes were cast in a district with 9 seats, any electoral list would need at least 10,000 votes to win a seat.
What this also means is that the “remainder” votes that are less than the equivalent of one seat in a district will be allocated to the parties who did manage to win seats. This is a common feature in proportional representation systems, which can allow a big party to win outright parliamentary majorities with less than 50% of the popular vote. But because the remainder is calculated in each of Lebanon’s 15 districts, its effect is magnified, illustrating why it’s important to fight for every vote under the current Lebanese electoral law. In some cases even a remainder of less than 0.1 can amount to another seat.
The 2018 results are shown below, in which the establishment parties are represented by lists 1 and 2 (perhaps lists 3 and 4 in the more diverse and competitive districts) and the anti-establishments lists trail far behind. Nevertheless, we can find some examples of remainders high enough (shown in green) to have resulted in more seats for anti-establishment lists of various orientations, had they run slightly more focused campaigns, and/or put their egos aside and formed a single list as an alternative to the establishment. This would have resulted in 10–12 more seats — an impressive increase over the actual results, but still not even 1/10 of parliament.
To model potential results for new elections, we have to make a few assumptions, one of which would be the inertia of the establishment parties and their allies. Even considering the enthusiasm of the current street action, the die-hards who reliably vote for the traditional parties are difficult to sway.
But there is still reason for hope: turnout. In order to change the political game for good, the surest way to alter the electoral math is to bring more people to vote, who would conceivably not support the establishment. This requires us to recalculate the 2018 results assuming that change-oriented lists ran super-disciplined campaigns and managed to bring turnout in all 15 districts to the 67% benchmark of Jbeil-Keserwan.
Admittedly, this is just a model. There is no crystal ball for any election, anywhere. It’s also an oversimplified analysis, based on the wildly optimistic assumption that ALL of the new voters will support anti-establishment lists, and that there will not be too many lists that dilute the impact. For example, in the first row marked Zahle, imagine that the 1.43 seats won by the increased turnout was split between 3 lists, all of which got 0.99 or less. In such a case, the establishment parties would ironically receive these votes and would still prevail.
Nevertheless, I use this extremely rosy best-case scenario to illustrate from a political strategist’s point of view the enormous difficulty of uprooting an entrenched political class, be it in Lebanon or anywhere else. Even with this hypothetical miracle inspired by the enthusiasm prevailing at the current street protests (being dubbed the “red line revolution” by its participants) and a perfect storm of favorable political conditions, the anti-establishment would gain 41 seats, not even 1/3 of the 128 seats in parliament. Faced with such a reform bloc, the bitter enemies within the establishment holding the other 2/3 would predictably join forces and form a power-sharing cabinet as they always do — but in this case not to further enrich themselves in a kleptocratic quid pro quo but merely to survive. Consequently, the reformers would be stuck complaining in parliamentary opposition: 41 Paula Yacoubians (referring to the former journalist elected in Beirut as the main success story of the 2018 elections who has become the poster child for opposition aerobics.)
The picture is quite bleak, and those taking to the street should temper their expectations. Breaking the cycle of domination by family legacies and entrenched tycoons in Lebanese politics can be done, but it will take several election cycles, even if all the stars miraculously align: reformers streamline their lists, competent candidates run disciplined campaigns, anti-establishment voters turnout, elected reformers don’t get corrupted once they have a taste of power, and the new class of leaders consolidates its position in every 4 year cycle until they get to majority of 65 MPs. Even the simplest of those preconditions is not remotely close to guaranteed.
So when it comes to removing a deep-seated, poorly performing political class like the one in Lebanon: don’t let hope die, but don’t hold your breath either.