Politics in Lebanon are based on a post-civil war imposed sectarian system where power is shared over the different groups. The president has to be someone from the Christian Maronite group, the prime minister is reserved for a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament has to be a Shia Muslim. However, divisions within the sectarian groups have left the country in a political deadlock, leaving Lebanon without a president for more than two years. 2016 marked a turning point in the country’s political situation. The parliament elected Michel Aoun, from the Free Patriotic Movement, as president.
In June 2017, a new election law was approved which is meant to improve the representation of sectarian groups. The new law paved the way for elections in May 2018. The elections brought a surprising defeat to the party of prime minister Saad Hariri. The Hezbollah led coalition won several seats and gained a majority. In October 2019 large scale protests about the political and economic situation in Lebanon broke out. Prime-minister Hariri resigned on October 29th and a new government, led by new prime-minister Diab, was formed on the 20th of January 2020. Less than a week after the massive explosion in Lebanon’s capital Beirut displaced over 300,000 people and left the city devastated, the new government under Diab resigned, on the 10th of August 2020.
Mustapha Adib was put forward by parliament as the new prime minister, but failed to form a government. Shia parties were unwilling to accept the proposed technocratic cabinet. Hariri was re-chosen as prime minister, also intending to form a non-partisan cabinet. So far he has failed to do so, with mainly Christian parties hindering the formation process. This has left the country with a Diab-led caretaker government, of which the competencies remain vague. Protesters have en-masse taken to the streets as the country is facing its worst economic crisis in decades. The already existing crisis has only been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Beirut explosion. Meanwhile international actors, such as France, have urged Lebanese politicians and political parties to set aside their differences and form a government as quickly as possible.
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- 6,855,713 million (World Bank 2019 est.)
- Governmental Type:
- Parliamentary multi-confessionalist republic
- Ruling Coalition:
- Last Elections:
- May 2018 (general elections)
- Next Elections:
- 2022 (general elections)
- Sister Parties:
- Progressive Socialist Party (PSP)
Lebanon has been without a government since the Diab-led cabinet resigned in August of 2020, following the disastrous Beirut explosion. Many Lebanese politicians criticized the former cabinet for being completely made of Hezbollah and its allies, excluding the mainstream Sunni bloc, which is led by former prime-minister Hariri. Hariri was appointed as the country’s new prime-minister, but given the underlying political tension between the blocs, it may come as no surprise that he has not proven successful in the formation of a new cabinet. This despite the fact that he is rooting for a non-partisan government.
Meanwhile, Lebanon is facing the worst economic crisis in its modern history. The Lebanese pound lost about 85% of its value since October 2019 and has hit an all-time low. Moreover, the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown has driven half the population into poverty. The country has held several sessions of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in hope to gain foreign aid. However, the IMF or any donor state will not provide help unless the government carries out reforms, at the forefront of them accelerating an overhaul of its loss-making electricity sector. Without a government, such reforms cannot be implemented, leaving the country in this dire situation.
Lebanon is also facing several challenges in its foreign policymaking. In 2009 the Leviathan field was discovered and found to hold about natural gas reserves of 600 billion cubic meters. The Leviathan falls in 860 square kilometers of disputed oceanic territory between Israel and Lebanon. This has raised tensions with Israel over the last few years, only negatively affecting the already strained relationship between the neighbours. In October of 2020 the countries launched talks to address the long-running dispute. The conflict has prevented the development of the offshore resources. The delegates of the countries were clear to state that they are seeking a technical solution and are not there to negotiate peace and normalisation of relations.
Formally Lebanon and Israel remain at war. Since the 2006 Lebanon War there have only been some minor border incidents, but the country’s have not signed an official peace treaty. Especially the relations between Hezbollah and Israel are strenuous, as a consequence of fighting during the 2006 war. Israeli law regards Lebanon as an enemy state and the border between the countries remains closed. A 2008 poll stated that 97% of Lebanese hold a negative view of Jews, illustrating why little has changed. After the Beirut explosion in August of 2020 Tel Aviv sought to show sympathy by raising a Lebanese flag though, also proving the country with support via a third way.
Relations between Lebanon and its neighbour Syria have been fragmented since the Syrian conflict broke out. Tensions increased during the war in Syria when around 1 million refugees came to Lebanon. This has put immense pressure on the country of not even 7 million people. The war also negatively impacted Lebanon’s economy, which has been in a bad state for years now. In most recent times the Assad government and elements of Lebanon’s government, notably Hezbollah, have grown closer again. Both the Assad regime and Hezbollah are highly influenced by Iran, which further complicates Lebanon’s internal politics. With Saudi Arabia also wielding much influence in Lebanon, the country has become more polarized in recent times. Therefore it is no surprise that government formation has proven so difficult.
Ongoing protests since October of 2019
The impact of the war in Syria, as well as years of corruption and inefficiency, have caused Lebanon’s GDP growth to fall from 8%-9% in 2011 to 0% in 2019. In 2019 Lebanon had a national debt of around 150% and unemployment among under 35s is as high as 37%. Although Lebanon’s governments have been warned about the possible consequences for years, they have failed to take action and implement the necessary reforms. The Beirut explosion in August of 2020 and the COVID-19 restrictions have only worsened the already critical state of the economy.
In 2019 the population already was increasingly fed up with the blatant corruption and nepotism among politicians. When the new government announced in October 2019 that they were going to implement a tax on internet-based calling services such as WhatsApp, the population had had enough. The combination of growing economic and political grievances sparked the start of what is called the Lebanese “October Revolution” on October 17th 2019. The protests started small but in a short time grew to a movement made up of hundreds of thousands of people protesting all over the country. The protests paralyzed Lebanon’s banking and transportation system and caused prime-minister Saad Hariri to hand in his resignation on October 29th 2019.
Even though the protest group managed to accomplish this, in reality, they are very decentralized and lack a leader. Often the different fractions of protesters have contradictory positions but they all tend to agree on a couple of things. The first is that the vast corruption among businessmen and politicians needs to end and the second is that they demand better governance. The new government led by Diab was also unable to solve the country’s enormous problems and quickly resigned after the Beirut explosion. Since then even more and more people have taken to the streets to demand political actions to end the ongoing economic crisis. With the COVID-19 restrictions, including tight curfews, the protests have escalated in the beginning of 202.
In January of 2020 the newly installed Diab-led cabinet included six women, out of a total of 30 ministers. Up until then there had only been two female ministers. To the outside world this might seem like Lebanon is making progress with regards to women’s rights, but women continue to be discriminated against in many ways. There is no quota for women in elected bodies and as a result Lebanon has one of the lowest percentages of women in politics in the MENA region.
Lebanese women cannot pass on their Lebanese nationality to their children. So if they marry a non-Lebanese man, their children are denied citizenship. This negatively affects their legal residency, access to work, education, social services and health care, while also putting them at risk of becoming stateless. In 2019 a proposed law which would help such children with job permits was returned by the President for “further review”. Other proposed laws against discrimination in the workplace are also bound to fail.
Currently there is also no minimum age for marriage, which allows for religious courts to approve marriages of girls aged beneath 15 years old. Marital rape also remains uncriminalized. Just like in many other MENA countries Lebanon repealed article 522 in 2017, which had previously allowed rapists to escape prosecution if they married the victim. This sounded like an important step, be it not for the loopholes related to sex with girls between 15 and 17 and virgin girls. These are just several of the most severe ways in which women are discriminated against. During the COVID-19 pandemic and periods of lockdown a worrying trend of increased domestic violence against women has been reported too.
LGBTI people in Lebanon face considerable difficulties in their daily lives, which non-LGBTI people do not have to face. However, in comparison to other Arab countries though, the LGBTI community is considerably more free. Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code still prohibits having sexual relations that “contradict the laws of nature”. The official punishment stands at one year in jail, but judges more regularly just charge a fine. Article 534 is often used to justify harassment and persecution of LGBTI people by the police. There are some positive signs though, as in 2017 a fourth judge went against Article 534. In a court order issued then stated that “homosexuality is a personal choice, and not a punishable offense”.
With the support of NGOs such as Amnesty International, UNHCR Lebanon and Human Rights Watch the situation for LGBTI people in Lebanon shows progress. Positve events include the 2013 declaration that homosexuality is not an illness, the 2016 recognition of a transgender man and that organizations such as Helem and Proud, who do many things with regards to LGBTI rights, were allowed to register in the country and participate in civil society. The 2017 organisation of Pride week in Lebanon and the widespread participation of the LGBTI community in the nationwide 2019 protests are also promising signs.
There are still many things to improve for the LGBTI community in Lebanon, who often remain excluded from society. To illustrate, in 2020 85% percent of the respondents of a survey still believe that society should not accept homosexualtiy. The LGBTI community remains negatively targeted by politicians and LGBTI individuals are regugarly mocked on TV. The police frequently raid nightclubs which are knows to be visited by gay men and arrest people on the suspicion of homosexual acts. The current economic crisis, in combination with the COVID-19 lockdown measures, have affected the LGBTI community more negatively than the rest of society.
Lebanon is a republic. The National Assembly indirectly elects the president as head of state for a six years term. The president, upon a binding consultation with the National Assembly, appoints the prime minister. The prime minister chooses the cabinet, after consultation of the president and the National Assembly.
Sectarian divisions in the country have plagued every post-civil war government. Increasing pressure from outside actors during the Syrian Civil War (2011-) complicated domestic politics. The stand-off between the Hezbollah led March 8 Alliance and Future movement led March 14 Alliance paralyzed both parliament and government for almost a decade. The parliament was under pressure to reform itself, but the sectarian division complicated negotiations. After years of negotiations, in June 2017 a new electoral law was passed replacing the ‘’1960 law’’.
Under this system, parties gained votes based on their religious sect. In this system, eighteen different confessional groups share power, with parliamentary seats being reserved for different groups. Each sect was granted a certain number of seats based on a quota, this quota was however seen as unfair and unrepresentative due to the country’s demographic shift. The new system is still based on the confessional power distribution, but instead of the 26 constituencies, people now vote in 15 new constituencies. This creates a proportional representation system.
The National Assembly
The unicameral National Assembly of Lebanon is elected for four years. The 128 seats in the National Assembly are equally divided among Muslims and Christians. Each of the eleven confessional subgroups occupies a fixed number of seats in the National Assembly. Due to this unusual division of seats in the National Assembly, the role of political parties in Lebanese politics is different from the role of political parties in normal parliamentary democracies. Many of the political parties are lists of candidates, supported by an important local figure. Political coalitions are therefore only formed because of electoral reasons, and easily fall apart once the seats in parliament are secured.
This form of parliamentary politics sustains a form of politics, based on satisfying instantly the grassroots support, rather than that it supports politics based on ideology and long-term objectives. Analysts say that Lebanese politics is both complicated and confusing. The combination of the fixed division of seats among the various religious groups, together with the many local candidates of different religions, makes it hard to get a clear view of the relative strength of political parties in the National Assembly.
The National Assembly is elected via a system of multi-member constituencies with each voter having two votes, one for a party and one for a specific candidate. The winners-take-all system, where the party winning most votes wins all the seats in the district, has been abolished as a result of the new election law. The National Assembly is now elected in fifteen rather than six different constituencies.
Lebanon has no legal electoral threshold, for now, and no compulsory voting. Lebanon has universal suffrage for all men, with a minimum age of 21. Women should have elementary education and the minimum age of 21 to be authorised to vote. Remarkably, voters do not vote according to their place of residence, but according to their “civil record”, usually the residence of their forefathers.
Increased Hezbollah influence in 2019 government formation
The last elections in May of 2018 were won by the Hezbollah bloc and the Christian Lebanese forces. The Future Movement, the party of the designated Prime Minister Hariri, lost one-third of its seats. Despite the loss, Hariri was appointed to form a government. Hariri has the task to divide the ministerial posts among six parties. Different problems occurred during the division of minister posts. One of the first problems during the summer was the dispute between the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Lebanese Forces (LF) about the Christian representation.
A second problem that occurred was about representation of the Druze. About 200.000 members of the Druze community are living in Lebanon and according to the constitution, the Druze are entitled to three ministerial posts. Most of the Druze are part of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), led by Walid Joumblatt. However, if Hariri would give the Druze of PSP this position, the Druze of the Lebanese Democratic Party (LDP) would not be represented. Joumblatt agreed to allocate only two Druze ministerial seats instead of three. LDP agreed with one minister post and put forward a ‘neutral’ candidate.
However, the biggest obstacle in the formation process was with Sunni representatives. It became known as the ‘Sunni Knot.’ Hezbollah was keen to have one of its Sunni allies as minister of health. However, the fear was that this appointment would complicate foreign (western) aid. Hezbollah insisted that their Sunni MPs should be represented in the new government, but Hariri and Aoun refused. Finally, the breakthrough came after the rival factions worked out compromises to allow the representation of Sunni lawmakers in the new formation.
Nine months after the general parliamentary elections in May a government was formed on 31 January 2019. The new 30-member cabinet finally came into being when the political blocs agreed on a new arrangement of the ministry positions. With many of the important ministry posts assigned to Hezbollah lawmakers and their Sunni allies, it seemed that their strength had grown significantly. The increased Hezbollah control of Lebanse politics suggests a growth in influence of Iran and the Assad government in the country.
Differences in 2020 government formation linger on in 2021
When prime-minister Saad Hariri resigned at the end of October he left a political vacuum that has been affecting all Lebanese citizens. The country requires urgent action to solve the economic crisis, but it has no leader to steer in the right direction. One of the main demands of the protesters was that a new government was to be chosen fast and that it would be made up of technocrats, instead of the sectarian politicians previously in power. Technocrats would be capable of carrying out effective economic reforms, which the country needs to qualify for economic support from the IMF.
Protesters’ demands for a cabinet of independent specialists were shared by the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF), which is a leading Christian grouping, as well as former prime-minister Hariri who is aligned with Gulf Arab and the western states. However, President Aoun and his Hezbollah allies believe the government should not be made up of just technocrats, but should include politicians as well. The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which was founded by president Aoun, stated that they too would not agree to a government which is only made up of technocrats. Lebanon’s foreign allies have urged them to form a credible government, meaning with limited influence of Hezbollah who is regarded by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, if it wants to receive international support to solve Lebanon’s problems.
When on the 19th of December 2019 former education minister Hassan Diab was chosen as the new prime minister of Lebanon, it was perceived by many as a victory for Hezbollah and its allies. The protesters rejected Diab as prime-minister because of his close ties with some of the ruling political parties. Even though Diab presented himself as independent, he had clear ties to the former ruling class. Hence,protesters continued to demand an independent prime-minister. In January of 2020 Diab announced the formation of his new cabinet. From the outside, the cabinet could be perceived as being made up of independents and technocrats, but upon taking a closer look this did not seem to be the case. Adding to the appeal of the international community was the fact that it was Lebanon's first cabinet with six women in it.
After the government fell in August of 2020, the conflict between Hezbollah-led forces and the opposition emerged again. Appointed prime minister Hariri has been proposing the instalment of a technocratic government, to get the country back on its feet. However, President Aoun has been blocking his proposed cabinets for months now, arguing in favour of a partisan government. He argues that without the support of political parties the cabinet is bound to fall in the near future. The difference of opinion has led to a political deadlock while the country is in dire need of political stability.
Parliamentary elections of 2018
On May 6th 2018 Lebanon went to the polls for the first general election in almost a decade. After a political impasse that lasted for several years due to internal and external strife, a large overhaul of the electoral system led in summer 2017 to the prospect of elections. The new electoral law redrew the country into 15 electoral districts, further entrenching Lebanon's sectarian makeup, and introduced proportional representation. Voters cast two votes, one for a list of candidates and one for a single preferred candidate.
|Amal-Hezbollah and allies||40||+9|
|Free Patriotic Movement and allies||29||+5|
|Free Patriotic Movement||18||+8|
|Future Movement and allies||20||-15|
|Lebanese Forces and allies||15||+7|
|Small independent parties||15||-4|
|Progressive Socialist Party||9||-2|
Only 49% of the electorate went to the polls compared to 54% during the last election. Many analysts cite the lack of trust in the government to tackle corruption and to boost the economy as reasons for the low voter turnout. The Shiite coalition of Hezbollah-Amal reaped the benefits of the newly implemented electoral law by increasing their parliamentary bloc to 40 MPs, while the Lebanese Forces (LF) pulled off an upset after securing 14 seats. The Future Movement saw its bloc almost split in half after getting only 20 seats. The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and their allies bolstered their position after electing 29 representatives.With the Iran-backed Shi'ite group Hezbollah and its political allies winning more than half the seats it will boost Hezbollah’s influence in the country.
International reaction and observers
The international community congregated Lebanon with its first election in almost a decade. The European Union (EU) acknowledged that the electoral process was an improvement from the old system. Real innovations, like ballot secrecy, were successfully implemented. The EU, however, had to acknowledge that there is room for improvement. There are still hurdles to take such as more room for female candidates. The international observation mission of the National Democratic Institute also noted that although the vote went relatively smooth, there were still incidents. “some polling officials failed to ensure the safety of election materials during the count,” as well as maintaining that “vote-buying was widely reported.” Lebanon’s Association For Democratic Elections (LADE) also recorded over 3000 violations from the moment the polls opened until the votes began to be tallied.
On 31 October 2016, the Lebanese parliament gathered together for the 46th time to vote on a new president. Finally, Michel Aoun (Free Patriotic Movement) won with a majority of 83 out of 128 votes. Before these elections, Lebanon had been without a president for 2.5 years, and it was the first time that the entire parliament gathered since April 2014. Aoun’s election is a victory for his Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah, which is heavily influenced by Iran and Syria. It was said that Aoun mainly got elected because of a deal he struck with the head of the Sunni movement, Saad Hariri. The deal involved that Hariri would become prime minister if he would support the election.
There were three rounds of voting. In the first round, Aoun did not secure a two-thirds majority among the 128 MPs present. The second round of voting only required a simple majority to win, though there were 128 ballots cast making the round invalid. In the third round, he received the winning 83 votes.
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