- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
This is an article about Lebanon’s 2005 general election. For analysis of results from Lebanon’s 2009 vote, click here.
This publication is now archived.
What was the result of the final round of Lebanese elections?
An anti-Syrian opposition coalition won a majority in Lebanon’s parliament in the first democratic elections since 1976, when Syria began a 29-year occupation of its neighbor. Many experts say the elections, and the government formed after them, will determine whether Lebanon can begin to build a genuine democracy free of Syrian control. Others warn, however, that the sectarian tensions that led to Lebanon’s brutal 1975-1990 civil war are rising again.
What were the events leading up to the elections?
The elections had already been scheduled for the end of May. But after former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in Beirut February 14, weeks of street protests--dubbed the "Cedar Revolution"--forced the resignation of pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami and his cabinet, greatly raising the stakes of the parliamentary vote. The demonstrations, along with international pressure that had been building for several months, also prompted Syria to withdraw the tens of thousands of troops and security forces that had enabled Damascus to control Lebanon for decades. Syria completed its withdrawal April 26. The elections began May 29 and were held in the country’s four main regions over successive Sundays.
Which parties won seats?
Voters selected candidates for all 128 parliamentary seats from slates put together by several parties. The most successful were:
- Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (Future Tide) coalition, 72 seats. An anti-Syria opposition coalition led by Said Hariri, a 35-year-old businessman and son of the former prime minister. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, joined forces with Walid Jumblatt, head of the minority Druze community and leader of the al-Taqadummi al-Ishtiraki, or Progressive Socialist Party. Jumblatt led a Syria-backed armed militia against Christian groups during the civil war; after the war he served as a cabinet official in several pro-Syrian Lebanese governments. In 1988, Jumblatt responded to attempts by Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to strip him of power by leaving government and joining the anti-Syria opposition movement. Future Tide also includes several notable Christian politicians.
- Amal Party/Hezbollah, 35 seats. Hezbollah is an armed Shiite militia backed by Iran that has wide support in Lebanon’s Shiite south, where it is credited with ending the Israeli occupation. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, formed a coalition with the Amal Party, a Shiite group led by Nabih Berri, a former military officer considered one of Syria’s main collaborators in Lebanon. The Amal/Hezbollah group, which polled strongly in the south, is now the main Shiite party in Lebanon.
- Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), 21 seats.General Michel Aoun, the FPM leader, is a Maronite Christian and former military officer who led a failed coup against Syria in 1989 and served briefly as Lebanon’s prime minister and acting president before fleeing to France. He returned to Lebanon May 7 after 14 years in exile. Aoun shocked many supporters by forming a last-minute alliance with Suleiman Franjieh, a Maronite Christian former cabinet minister and part of a prominent pro-Syrian clan. The alliance made strong gains in the third week of voting in the Christian areas of central Mount Lebanon and the eastern Bekaa Valley. That showing made Aoun the most influential Maronite leader in the country. "It’s clear now that Aoun speaks for the Maronite interests," says Hussein Ibish, vice chair of the Progressive Muslim Union and former Washington correspondent for Beirut’s Daily Star. Maronite Christians in Lebanon’s heartland voted overwhelmingly for Aoun and against the Christian leaders who ran on their own or joined the Future Tide coalition.
Were the elections free and fair?
Lebanon allowed international election observers to monitor the ballot, a first in Lebanese history. A 100-member European Union (EU) delegation monitored voter registration, campaigns, and voting, and approved the election as free of foreign influence and fair, despite some late accusations of vote-buying. EU officials did say, however, that the country’s entire election system needed reform. Other international observers included U.N. Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen and U.S. Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del).
What is the balance of power in Lebanon’s governmental system?
Members of the national assembly choose both the president and the prime minister. The incumbent president is Emile Lahoud, a pro-Syria politician whose term was extended by three years to 2007 by a controversial, Syria-backed constitutional amendment last year. As a result of the elections, Lahoud’s future is unclear; some experts say he may resign or be forced out. After an official tally is reached from the June 19 round of voting, the newly elected parliamentarians will select a prime minister. Once approved by the president, the prime minister will form a cabinet. Experts say the prime minister and president share power and have roughly equal influence. The prime minister oversees the day-to-day running of the government through his cabinet, while the president controls national security and foreign policy.
How did Lebanon’s mix of ethnic and religious groups factor into the election?
Lebanon’s population is divided among Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, the Druze sect of Islam, Christians, and others. The country has long wrestled with sectarian strife. At the end of French occupation in 1943, a so-called confessional system was set up, dividing the parliament between Christians and Muslims and reserving certain political posts for certain religious groups. Some experts say Lebanon’s sectarian tensions, which were muffled by the anti-Syrian sentiments that fueled the Cedar Revolution, are as strong as ever. Under the confessional system, the country’s president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the parliament’s speaker must be a Shiite Muslim. Critics say this system perpetuates unfair religious discrimination and are agitating to switch to a secular, one-person, one-vote system in which political posts are open to all.
What is Lebanon’s current election law?
Under a law drawn up in 2000 under Syrian rule, Lebanon is divided into a complex web of districts and provinces designed to give each of 18 different Muslim and Christian sects a fixed number of seats in parliament. These seats were gerrymandered to elect pro-Syrian politicians and do not reflect current demographic realities. Overall, parliamentary seats are divided equally between Muslims and Christians. This is a consequence of the October 1989 Taif Accords that ended the civil war; before that, the confessional system gave Christians 60 percent of parliament and Muslims 40 percent. While Lebanon has not held a census in more than 70 years, most observers agree that Muslims outnumber Christians among the roughly 4.5 million Lebanese. Some estimates put the country at about 70 percent Muslim--of which about half are Shiite, many are Sunni, and a minority are from the Druze sect of Islam--and roughly 30 percent Christian.
How long were Syrian troops in Lebanon?
From 1976 to 2005. Full-scale civil war broke out in April 1975 between the Maronite Christian groups of the Lebanese Front and the Lebanese National Movement, which was made up of left-leaning Muslims who wanted a greater share of political power. Fighting was intense, and in June 1976 the Maronite-dominated government asked for support from Syria.
Syria had previously mounted several failed diplomatic efforts to stop the war. For then-Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad--the late father of current president Bashar al-Assad--the Lebanese conflict presented a range of possibilities, all of them unappealing: sectarian strife spilling over into Syria, which had its own Christian-Muslim tensions; an Israeli invasion of Lebanon; or the establishment of a radical, left-wing Muslim state, if the Lebanese National Movement won. Assad sent in troops to strengthen the Maronite government, which he calculated he could manipulate, according to Mideast analysts. Assad’s move earned the wrath of the Muslim world, because he backed the Christian side. Still, small contingents of troops from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Sudan later joined the Syrian-dominated Arab Deterrent Force. The war lasted 15 years.
What caused the war?
Tensions among Lebanon’s Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, and the Druze Muslim sect. Those groups had long jockeyed for power and influence. Under the confessional system, Christians had the upper hand in the national assembly. This arrangement bred resentment among Lebanese Muslims, especially as they grew to outnumber Christians.
In the early 1970s, the arrival of Yasir Arafat and thousands of his fellow Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) militants exacerbated Christian-Muslim tensions and swelled the Muslim ranks with thousands of experienced gunmen. Lebanese Muslim groups supported the PLO fighters, recently expelled from Jordan, while Maronite Christian groups worried that PLO raids against Israel would invite retaliation and destabilize Lebanon. Throughout the 1970s, the PLO increasingly used Lebanon as a base from which to attack Israel. Israeli forces invaded in 1978 and 1982; after the second invasion, they remained and occupied a strip of southern Lebanon for nearly 20 years. Egypt, Iraq, and Libya supported Muslim factions in the civil war, while the United States and Israel backed Christian groups. During the long course of the conflict, Syria alternately supported the Christian and Muslim sides.
What ended the war?
The Taif Accords, an agreement brokered by Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, that gave Lebanese Muslims a greater share of political power in Lebanon and formalized "preferred relations" between Lebanon and Syria. Syria’s internationally recognized role as "the guarantor of Lebanon’s security" was also established in these accords, says Murhaf Jouejati, director of the Middle East Studies program at George Washington University.
What impact did the Taif Accords have on the Syria-Lebanon relationship?
Experts say the agreement gave Hafez al-Assad effective control over most of Lebanon in return for a promise to maintain internal stability. The Syrians were supposed to set a timetable for a withdrawal of their troops to the Bekaa Valley, a strategic security zone between Syria and Lebanon, by 1992 or another date negotiated with the Lebanese government. Lebanon’s pro-Syria government, however, did not request a Syrian withdrawal until forced to by massive public pressure in February 2005.