Sectarianism is playing a more central role in Lebanon’s highly contested parliamentary elections on 7 June, which analysts say could see the country facing increased political instability. The vote pits the Western-backed ruling coalition, predominantly made up of Sunni Muslim, Christian and Druze parties, against the Hezbollah-led opposition, mostly composed of Shia Muslims and Christians.
“A bitter campaign has re-awakened painful civil war memories,” an International Crisis Group (ICG) report said. “Underlying conflicts will be revived, not resolved.”
Lebanon is home to 18 official sectarian groups, or ‘confessions’, and still bears the painful scars of a 1975-1990 civil war that split the country under predominantly confessional lines.
This election is being held according to a revised electoral law adopted in September 2008 which increased the number of electoral districts from 14 to 26.
An assessment of the law published by Democracy Reporting International (DRI) and the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) concluded that the law “accentuates confessional divisions" and increases “the long-term potential for conflict in the country”.
The report found that the new division of electoral districts essentially created 13 “mono-confessional” districts, whereby all lawmakers there belong to a single confessional group and where electorates are relatively homogenous.
Political power is divided according to religion in Lebanon. Electoral districts have more than one seat and seats are also allocated according to sect.
“The most serious implication of the 2008 election law is the fact that it has increased the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics,” analyst Deen Sharp wrote on his blog following the Lebanese election.
“Before, the assumption was that your campaign would have to be aimed at a wider base than voters from your own sect,” he told IRIN, adding that electoral lists reflected less confessional diversity.
Smaller electoral districts imply that there is less need for broad-based coalitions comprised of candidates from various sects.
“Smaller districts tend to overemphasize the sectarian sensitivities. They are also more likely to be dominated by one sect and politicians have the tendency of over-playing fears,” said Emile El-Hokayem, a Middle East expert with the Henry L. Stimson Center.
A win for the opposition has raised fears that Lebanon would shift from its pro-Western orientation to one more closely aligned with Iran, which has strong links with Hezbollah.
On a recent trip to Beirut, US Vice President Joe Biden said that the United States would re-evaluate the shape of its assistance programs to Lebanon depending on the policies and shape of the new government.
While the new election law was a key component of a 2008 Qatari-brokered peace deal between the feuding Lebanese factions, the country remains vulnerable to political turmoil, analysts say.
Since the last election in 2005, Lebanon has witnessed a series of assassinations of public figures, a devastating war with Israel in 2006, a deadly battle with Islamists in 2007 and civil sectarian strife that left dozens killed in May 2008.
These occurrences all resulted in short and long-term displacement, economic ramifications and increased tensions and distrust between confessional groups that keep the country on the brink of violence.
“Unlike other countries that experience periods of instability, Lebanon is fundamentally unstable,” said Hani Sabra, Lebanon analyst for Eurasia Group a political risk research and consulting company.
“There are so many potential triggers that can lead to violence in Lebanon and governance tends to always be a patchwork of ad hoc leadership designed to please local political leaders and foreign patrons,” he added.
The bitter election race thus far has been relatively free of violence, though fears remain that the calm may cease in the coming days and months as election results come out and the tricky business of forming a national unity cabinet begins.
The government has taken precautionary measures to ensure security through the elections. Schools will be closed on Monday 8 June, the day after the election. A curfew will be in place as of midnight on 6 and 7 June, and the interior ministry has announced that a 50,000-strong security force was deployed around the country on June 7.