According to recent post-election polling, Hezbollah enjoys the confidence of slightly over 50% of the respondents, representing those who voted and those who did not. The only person who has a higher positive ranking is President Michel Aoun, which is a strong indicator that Hezbollah retains its luster as an integral part of the Lebanese power structure. It has strong support among Christian and Sunni Lebanese who value its role in opposing Islamist extremists and acting as a “protector” of Lebanon’s southern border.
This is not to say that Hezbollah does not have its detractors, as its main opposition in Parliament, the Lebanese Forces (LF), increased its seats from 8 to 15. So why is Hezbollah, and its ally Amal, which represents much of the Shia community, seen as a lynchpin to Lebanon’s survival?
In that same poll, when asked to name the most important factor guiding their choice, almost 32% of those responding indicated “to keep Lebanon safe,” as the highest ranked choice. While one can argue that Hezbollah’s actions in support of the Assad regime may in fact open the door to greater Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanon, it has increased its reputation through greater deference to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in supporting its actions against Islamist extremists in the Arsal region, and in withdrawing from those areas in which the LAF is expanding its scope of operations along the eastern border with Syria, moving closer to taking responsibility in the south as well.
It is ironic that both Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, and Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist Movement in Iraq, ran their campaigns as reformers, aiming at corruption, improving the economy, and energizing government services. In fact, this was arguably the first Parliamentary election in Lebanon in which parties ran on platforms, campaigned vigorously across many districts, and made alliances with an array of partners to improve their vote tallies.
Yet the question remains, is Hezbollah a Lebanese entity or an Iranian proxy? Reactions to the election results brought a chorus of condemnation in the western media and Israel that Hezbollah had won the election and was in control of Lebanon. Obviously, these critics are exploiting the outcome potentially to destabilize Lebanon, or don’t understand how the Lebanese government functions.
At the political heart of the Lebanese system is a power-sharing agreement coming out of the Taif agreement ending the civil war. That agreement decreased the power of the presidency, shifting it to Parliament and the Council of Ministers, split the Parliament into a 50-50 ratio between Christians and Muslims, and allocated other powers across more sects, thus ensuring that all governments would be based on coalitions of similar interests.
So what we are seeing now in the negotiations for a new government is that Christians are split over Ministry allocations, Druze are attempting to limit the influence of other Druze leaders, Shia are angling for Ministries with large social services and jobs creation, all while the acting government continues to face one of the worst debt to GDP ratios in the world, the status of Syrian refugees is reaching the level of an existential crisis, and Russia’s influence grows as the US role diminishes.
For the foreseeable future, the Shia community and Hezbollah, and its partners of convenience from other sects will continue to play an outsized role in Lebanese politics. The tables are turned from the last time around when their alliance had what is referred to as the “blocking third” that can stop any significant legislation from passing. Now the Syrian opposition in Parliament has that role, which makes for an interesting dilemma for a country that must past significant reform legislation to access funds from international donors earmarked for security, infrastructure, and relief tied to the refugees.
One point of agreement is that the return of Syrian refugees must be expedited to areas under the control of the Assad regime. As problematic as that is in terms of human rights, securing lost or abandoned property, safety and security in those areas, and the logistics involved, most of the Lebanese are tired of the burden of supporting almost a quarter of the country as refugees. How Hezbollah plays this out in supporting Assad and meeting international concerns for the return of the refugees will be another factor in determining if it is truly a Lebanese organization seeking Lebanon’s interests, or an Iranian proxy that follows the lead of its patron.