Nasrallah’s Leadership Still “Hot” Despite Major Political Setback in Recent Elections

  • Iran-backed Shiite bloc, made up of Hezbollah and its allies, loses parliamentary majority. 
  • Despite initially declaring victory, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, pledges cooperation with independent groups. 
  • Due to the divisions within the opposition, experts express scepticism that Hezbollah will lose its power irrespective of the election results.
Hassan Nasrallah (CC BY 4.0)

Why is Nasrallah’s heat level hot?

Answer: The absence of any political majority in parliament paves the way for protracted political deadlock in Lebanon, granting a new lease of life to traditional parties like Hezbollah.

The May 15th parliamentary elections in Lebanon brought modest, albeit potentially significant shifts in the country’s political establishment. Whereas Hezbollah —Arabic for “Party of God”, a Shia Muslim militia and political party— has resolutely withstood and retained its seats in traditional strongholds on the periphery of Beirut and in the south of the country, this has not been the case for its coalition partners, prompting the Iran-backed bloc to lose the parliamentary majority it had held since the 2018 elections.

Yet despite such an apparent blow, no consolidated alternative front has emerged to oppose Hezbollah. In his first televised speech since the closing of the polls, the group’s leader and secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, in his typically eloquent rhetoric, announced “a big victory” for his organization. In truth, regardless of an increased presence of independent and opposition groups, Nasrallah still leads the largest bloc in parliament, with sufficient power to pressure any decision contrary to Hezbollah’s interests.

Under Nasrallah’s outspoken leadership, Hezbollah has demonstrated it still enjoys comfortable support among Shiite Muslims. While the community remains dependent on the defective provision of state services, it is the recipient of exclusive assistance from Hezbollah. The community thus continues to back the group not solely for the empowerment of their traditionally marginalized identity but also because of the advantages they may benefit from if they choose to support it as well as on account of the perceived protection provided by the group’s militia. 

For many, however, there is fear that Hezbollah’s sustained use of violence has compromised their entire community in the eyes of other Lebanese, dreading reprisals if the group grows weaker. Such a situation, nevertheless, still serves Nasrallah’s interest to sustain a stagnant system as it prolongs Shiite dependence on Hezbollah, thus ensuring the votes the group needs to stay in power.

What is changing Nasrallah’s heat level?

Answer: Nasrallah is now facing a larger yet disjointed opposition, in which he will be forced to forge alliances to find ways to maintain his status and that of his party.

Two years into the country’s disastrous economic crisis, dubbed by the World Bank as one of the worst financial collapses since 1850, elections were held amid low expectations that the results could bring the change the country sorely needs. Despite an increase in the diaspora vote, the country saw a 59% abstention rate; voters seemed to have turned back on a system largely perceived as flawed

Despite these prospects, there have been modest but meaningful shifts in the Lebanese political scene. More than a dozen independent candidates have prevailed in traditional strongholds previously held by Hezbollah-aligned Christian and Druze parties. On their agenda is the urge for structural change in the Lebanese establishment —namely aimed at ending corruption and resource mismanagement—, along with consistent socio-economic reforms. These are demands that had already been voiced throughout the October 2019 revolution, a popular upsurge from which they draw most of their support. 

Moreover, elections have cast light on Nasrallah’s struggle to stay relevant in a country on the brink of collapse. His image —much as Hezbollah’s— has been tarnished by the group’s insistent opposition to the investigation into the 2020 port explosion that killed more than 200 people and destroyed large areas of the capital Beirut. Amid last year’s deadly clashes to oust the judge in charge, the group’s “resistance ideology” seems to have receded into the background for many Lebanese, especially Christians, a reversal in perspective that has lured votes away from Nasrallah’s coalition. 

In contrast, these elections have seen the rise of US, Saudi-backed Samir Geagea, Nasrallah’s nemesis heading the quest to disarm Hezbollah. His rise has come mainly at the expense of Hezbollah’s allies, including President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, as Geagea’s party, the right-wing Lebanese Forces, is now constituting the largest Christian group in parliament.

Equally significant is the vacuum left in the Sunni leadership by the departure of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Saad Hariri, from politics earlier this year. In spite of pressing calls for boycotting the elections in the absence of a clear leadership on the part of Sunni voters, the expectation that Hezbollah would ultimately benefit from the fractured Sunni vote failed to materialize, effectively reversing Hezbollah’s ability to galvanize votes into its coalition beyond its sectarian boundaries.

This presents Nasrallah with an unforeseen predicament in which he faces a broader yet disjointed opposition in which he will need to forge alliances, as well as to devise means to maintain his position and discourage decisions that may be contrary to his interests. Yet, the ability of the new parliament to compromise on substantive matters —such as the formation of a new government or the upcoming presidential election— appears to be limited. 

Nasrallah’s influence in compelling his allies to reach consensus is impaired by his reluctance to adopt positions contrary to those of his now weakened political partners. On top of that, in the highly unlikely scenario that a government is formed without Hezbollah, it is unclear whether Nasrallah retains the capacity to hold the country hostage to thwart any political move by such a government that is detrimental to him.

What is driving Nasrallah?

Answer: Nasrallah is keen to enhance Hezbollah’s image as a responsible national actor whose primary concern is to bring about the betterment of Lebanon, its security and its sovereignty.

Hezbollah’s military and social power running parallel to that of the state, along with its ability to use the growing dependence of its constituency to consolidate its influence, have brought many Lebanese to regard the group not as a legitimate national authority, but as a thuggish organization entrenched in its recurrent obstruction of justice and accountability.

Contributing to this image is the fact that Hezbollah’s budget has become increasingly constrained since Iran has come under economic pressure due to heightened international sanctions, thus forcing the group to curtail the provision of services, in addition to resorting to other smuggling or corruption practices in order to compensate for expenses. 

Consequently, Nasrallah stands in front of a new kind of challenge, this time coming from within his own base: to establish a better image of Hezbollah as a responsible national actor, whose primary concern is to bring about an improvement in Lebanon’s internal situation while preserving its sovereignty and resources. In this regard, Nasrallah still makes consistent use of the “Israeli card” particularly in the face of the disagreement between the two countries over their common maritime border, an issue which enjoys some degree of consensus across the Lebanese political spectrum. 

To enforce such claims, Hezbollah will hold on to its weapons on behalf of Lebanon’s interests, justifying then its determination not to yield to demands for its disarmament by its opponents, including Geagea with the repeated Israeli threats. It helps that amidst mounting political pressure for Hezbollah to give up on its weapons, society is divided over the importance of the issue and how or even whether to force the party to disarm. 

Along these lines, Nasrallah is aware that the threat of the use of force has proven more effective than the weapons themselves, thus switching his emphasis to the use of small arms domestically rather than using them in large-scale confrontations in Syria or Yemen. This enables the group to assert its dominance —along with Iran’s leverage— over competing factions, ultimately irrespective of the group’s political momentum.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The inability of Nasrallah and other parties to reach a consensus is hindering the formation of a government in Lebanon, thus depriving the country of the financial aid and political stability it desperately needs.

Without any camp winning a clear majority, many Lebanese fear the elections have raised the risk of paralyzing an already dysfunctional system by giving a new lease of life to the traditional parties accused of bringing the country to its knees. In truth, establishment political forces, including Hezbollah, still hold ninety per cent of the parliament, proving that, when it comes to elections, exploiting clientelism and instigating sectarian fears continue to be important political tools.

This, in turn, could further limit the political reach of new independent groups advocating the dismantling of the confessional system that parcels power across sectarian lines. Many feel that, in such precarious times, it is a bad idea to upset the political status quo, for fear of stirring up sectarian violence, still fresh in the memories of many Lebanese who lived through the nation’s bloody civil war.

As a result, government formation is likely to be complicated and lengthy. The constitution, which formalized the sectarian divide by virtue of the 1989 Taif Agreement, establishes clear procedures: Lebanon’s president, a Christian, must appoint the new prime minister, a Sunni Muslim, in consultation with parliament, which in turn must choose a Shiite speaker. The prime minister is in charge of appointing the new council of ministers or cabinet.

This process has routinely proved difficult, with political actors vetoing candidates to maximize their share of executive authority. However, much more is at stake now. First, the parliament will face its most important test in electing the president; in November of this year, Michel Aoun’s mandate as president is set to expire, leaving vacant the most powerful position responsible for signing all legislation and, nominally at least, serving as commander-in-chief of the Lebanese army. 

In view of this, the two majority blocs, led by Geagea and Nasrallah respectively, will confront each other to appoint their respective candidates for the presidency, in a contest in which none of them harvests enough power to win over the other. Aoun, for his part, will retain his allegiance to Nasrallah, nominating Gebran Bassil, his son-in-law, for the presidency. Should he have to back down, he is likely to bargain for greater representation of his bloc, which includes Hezbollah, in the cabinet, which could further aggravate the instability of a future government.

To further aggravate the issue, the parties are aware that the new government emerging from the May elections may, in less than six months, arrogate to itself all executive power in the event that there is no consensus on the presidency, a quite feasible scenario. The constitution delegates the president’s powers to the council of ministers in the event that no president is elected.

However, with no consensus on Aoun’s successor, it is also unlikely that a government will be formed soon. Without it, Lebanon would not meet the conditions required to receive the urgently needed IMF funds, which will not arrive if the country does not undergo substantial legislative and fiscal reforms, as set out in the agreement of April this year.

Given the outcome of the elections, protracted negotiations on the new balance of power appear almost inevitable. In its first test, the parliament appointed Nabih Berri, Shiite leader of the Hezbollah-aligned Amal party, as speaker in a rare consensus that has nonetheless sustained Berri in this position since 1992. Along the same lines, the current government headed by Najib Mikati will remain in office until the country’s political forces agree on its replacement. However, it is doubtful whether a caretaker cabinet could assume presidential functions in the absence of agreement on Aoun’s successor.

For the moment, Geagea and Nasrallah —the two most prominent rivals— will work to neutralize each other and any political alternative that might emerge in order to deter the other from taking the initiative. Such stagnation will perpetuate the ongoing economic crisis and deprive Lebanon of the long-awaited foreign aid it desperately needs. Any failed attempt in negotiating a way out could ultimately result in an existential crisis for the country’s governing social contract, all at the expense of its population.