Lebanon's new balance of power: Will Nabih Berri be re-elected?

Analysis - Nabih Berri
5 min read
30 May, 2022
Analysis: The veteran speaker of parliament is a symbol of Lebanon's corrupt ruling elite, but facing opposition from new MPs, his re-election is far from guaranteed.

For the first time since the economic crisis in 2019, Lebanese citizens voted on 15 May to elect a new parliament. The election set into motion two significant changes in the legislative branch of the government.

On one hand, voters elected thirteen candidates inspired by the Lebanese uprising (or Thawra), a series of anti-establishment protests that started on 17 October 2019 to protest against the ruling class.

On the other, Hezbollah and its allies lost their parliament majority. Although the Iran-backed Shia party gained one more seat compared to the 2018 election results, its main allies, the Shia-led Amal Movement and the Christian-led party Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), lost three and six seats, respectively.

Overall, Hezbollah and its allies won around 62 of the parliament's 128 seats, short of the 65 required for a majority, while they secured 71 seats in the 2018 election.

"In 2018, Berri was smoothly elected with 98 votes. But this time, his seventh attempt could face obstruction by rival blocs"

Amid such political change, the Lebanese Forces (LF), a Saudi-backed Christian party, gained four seats compared to their 2018 performance. Independent candidates not directly linked to establishment parties won 16 seats.

As a result, the lack of a majority in parliament has caused a fragmentation that could generate a political spat between the blocs.

One of the first testbeds that the new parliament will face is the election of the speaker of the parliament.

The speaker's election is not only important for the sake of parliamentarian activities but also tests the parliament's stability and the delineation of different coalitions.

Lebanon's new parliament began its mandate Sunday 22 May, and one of its first acts will be to elect a speaker and deputy speaker.

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In fact, the incumbent Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, leader of Hezbollah's ally Amal Movement who has headed the Parliament since 1992, scheduled a parliament session to elect the speaker and deputy speaker on Tuesday, 31 May.

Although it is not mentioned in the Lebanese constitution, the role of the speaker of the parliament is held, by convention, by a Shia Muslim.

In 2018, Berri was smoothly elected with 98 votes. But this time, his seventh attempt to be re-elected could face obstruction by rival blocs. 

According to article 44 of the Lebanese constitution, the speaker of the parliament is elected by an absolute majority (half plus one) of MPs for the first and second ballots, which means that Berri needs at least 65 votes, while the third ballot requires a relative majority (the candidate with the most votes).

But even in this case, the odds that Berri will be re-elected are not necessarily guaranteed.

Observers say that Hezbollah's bloc could count on 59-62 seats, an insufficient number for Berri to retain the highest office in the legislative body of Lebanon with an absolute majority.

Lebanon's first test: Will Nabih Berri be re-elected?
Nabih Berri, leader of Hezbollah's ally Amal Movement, has headed the parliament since 1992. [Getty]

Political analyst Kassem Kassir told The New Arab that there is contact between different parliamentary forces and political figures to ensure that the largest number of deputies attend the session. "Over the next few days, the picture will become clear," he said.

Berri could count on the votes of MPs affiliated with the two Shia parties as well as several Sunni parties aligned with Hezbollah. But election results show that the Shia bloc is not enough to secure Berri the position.

Following the election results, LF leader Samir Geagea confirmed to AFP that the bloc would not vote for Berri.

The Christian party Kataeb claimed it wouldn't vote for Berri, while the Progressive Socialist Party, led by Lebanese Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, which aligned with the LF in several areas of the country in the 2022 elections, is instead likely to vote for Amal's leader, according to a source reported by news outlet Asharq Al-Awsat.

"The uncertainty of some political blocs and the lack of an alternative are likely to advantage Berri in securing the speakership"

The 13 candidates belonging to anti-establishment groups are expected not to vote for Berri. From their perspective, it would represent a continuation of the current ruling elite’s status quo.

But even inside Hezbollah's bloc, it is not certain that its Christian ally, the FPM, could lead Berri to re-election.

The FPM's leader Gebran Bassil, the Lebanese President Michel Aoun's son-in-law, is wavering over Berri's re-election.

Local news outlets reported that during a festival organised after the elections, he questioned the reasons that prevent other candidates from running for election as speaker of the parliament. His statement has been interpreted as opposition to Berri's re-election.

The founder of the FPM, president Aoun, and therefore Bassil, share a years-long rivalry with Berri dating back before the end of the civil war. But the crisis within the Christian party, which lost six seats in the 2022 election, could bring votes to Berri’s count from MPs hostile to Bassil’s leadership.

Even though some political blocs have claimed they wouldn't vote for Berri's re-election, they have yet to present an alternative to him.

The vacuum of any alternative to Berri would block the road for a new course within Lebanon's politics, as aimed for by the anti-establishment parties, because it is unlikely that Shia MPs would dare to challenge him.

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Consultations and negotiations between the blocs are ongoing. The fragmentation of the newly elected parliament and the lack of a clear majority could lead the parliament to a political stalemate.

The uncertainty of some political blocs and the lack of an alternative are likely to advantage Berri in securing the speakership.

"There is no alternative to Berri being the only candidate. We are facing a new political reality, and there is no clear majority. The party is still strong, and it has strong allies. It would be better to make compromises and conduct negotiations to solve problems," Kassir said.

According to local news outlets, Ghassan Hasbani of the Lebanese Forces, Elias Bou Saab of the FPM, and Melhem Khalaf of the anti-establishment bloc are competing for the deputy speaker's seat.

But any political stalemate that could emerge from the election of the speaker could also have repercussions for the new government's formation and the election of the president of Lebanon, scheduled for October.

Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi