The Secret to Hezbollah's Electoral Success

With the party’s lock on the Shia vote in Lebanon, its economic failures seem to matter little.

Lebanon's Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem votes at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Beirut, Lebanon.  (Mohamed Azakir / Reuters )

BAALBEK, LEBANON—Hezbollah’s yellow flags stretched for miles along the highway to Baalbek, a Lebanese city near the frontier with Syria. They hung from every light post, interspersed with images of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the party. In some, he smiled; in others, he wore a grave expression and saluted. The message to voters on the party’s banners was simple: We protect, and we build.  

Ghaleb Yaghi, a former mayor of Baalbek who ran in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections this past weekend, its first in nine years, took issue with both claims. (The current parliament twice extended its term, citing security fears related to the war in neighboring Syria.) Hezbollah, he said while leaning back on a sofa in his campaign headquarters, had been a “political failure,” too consumed with fighting wars across the Middle East to develop a strategy for improving the lives of citizens. Its fighters trained Shia insurgents to fight against American soldiers in Iraq, and are now major backers of Syria's Assad regime; the U.S. government considers it a terrorist group. Meanwhile at home, the district, known as Baalbek-Hermel, is plagued by a lack of security—at least one recent election-related clash devolved into an exchange of mortar fire—which has deterred tourism and investment. It is also one of Lebanon’s most impoverished areas, where roughly 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line and more than half are unemployed.

Lebanon’s political system is based on a power-sharing arrangement between the country’s diverse sects, with a set number of the 128 parliament seats reserved for each community. The country’s politics mirror the larger conflicts in the Middle East, at home pitting the Iran-backed Hezbollah against Sunni parties supported by Saudi Arabia; and internationally, deepening the confrontation between Iran and Israel, which Hezbollah has said it seeks to eliminate. The right-wing Israeli minister Naftali Bennett reacted to the results by saying that Lebanon equals Hezbollah. He said that Israel would not distinguish between them, despite Hezbollah's slim share of the overall number of seats.

It may seem simple for a candidate to attract votes by harping on the ruling party’s failure to improve such a dire economic situation. But not in Baalbek: Yaghi went down in defeat, as did every other Shia candidate there running against Hezbollah. While his list did secure a Sunni and a Christian seat in the district, Hezbollah and its allies swept 26 out of 27 seats reserved for Shiites across Lebanon. “There’s a saying: ‘If you starve your dog, he’ll follow you,’” he said. “Unemployment has become very high in Baalbek, and the young people can’t find work. So the alternative to finding work is to join Hezbollah for $400 a month, and go off and fight somewhere. … And then he comes back in a box, as a martyr.”

As the election results came in, it became clear that voters had punished the largest party within the Sunni bloc for years of perceived mismanagement. It was a different story, however, within the predominantly Shia parts of the country. Hezbollah not only won the election in Lebanon’s south—it dominated. Even if all the lists running against the party combined their votes in the region, they still wouldn’t have won enough to pick up a single seat.

Hezbollah and its allies now control a majority in Lebanon’s parliament—a victory that they will use as evidence of popular support for the party’s intervention in Syria, its stance toward Israel, and broader regional alliance with Iran.

Hezbollah is, of course, genuinely popular within the Shia community. Its message that it has protected the country against threats, both from Israel and from Syrian jihadists alike, rings true for many of its voters, who also see Nasrallah as devoid of corruption, unlike the rest of the crooked political establishment. But the political resources at Hezbollah’s disposal, which include a construction arm and a foundation to support families whose sons have been killed fighting under its flag, dwarf those of the other parties. The weakness of the Lebanese state also provides Hezbollah with a trump card, allowing it to portray itself as the only power that can protect its supporters from internal and external enemies. These accumulated advantages have left those running against the party to question whether there is any governance failure large enough to cause Hezbollah to lose an election. “They’re using the sectarian card, they’re trying to bring all the Shia together to follow them,” Yaghi said. “They’re taking people who are hungry and paying them, and they have weapons and money that nobody else has.”

Yaghi is accustomed to fighting for a losing cause. He served one term as Baalbek’s mayor, during which he said he focused on developing the economy and promoting tourism to the city’s exquisite Roman ruins. Lebanon was under Syrian occupation at the time, and when it came time for Yaghi to run for re-election in 2004, he said, the Syrian intelligence officer in charge of the area told him not to run. Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, the officer said, wanted to give the municipality to Hezbollah in order to show the Americans that the party was not a terrorist organization, but a political party with grassroots support. He defied the order and ran anyway, losing in what he called a rigged election.

Like all Shia candidates running against Hezbollah in the parliamentary elections, Yaghi steered clear of criticizing Hezbollah’s role as a military force. Its fighters have fought in Syria and Iraq, trained Iran-backed groups in both those countries, and likely provided some support to Tehran’s allies in Yemen as well. The group’s original sin, he said, was entering politics in 1992—it should have simply left the messy business of governance to others. “We’re not against Hezbollah as a resistance, so long as it resists in the right way,” he said. “Our quarrel with them is development. We want development for the city, and they want to wait until they’ve liberated everything and then look toward development.”

There is no question that Yaghi is right about the region’s need for economic development. Syrian refugees have poured into the region in recent years and now comprise one-third of the area’s population, according to Rami Lakkis, the founder of the Lebanese Organization for Studies and Training, a Baalbek-based development organization. They are competing with low-income Lebanese for jobs and putting a strain on the area’s weak institutions, he said, particularly its water supply—a crucial component of its agriculture sector. Lakkis said that his organization receives thousands of applications for work. “We are operating a kitchen to provide food for poor families,” he said. “We thought that it would be mainly for Syrians and we could not get Lebanese to come, but now we found that the Lebanese also need to come to get the food to feed their families.”

Hezbollah’s campaign rhetoric seemed to acknowledge economic grievances as a potential political weakness. In a shift from past campaigns, party officials focused on development and anti-corruption as major themes, instead of emphasizing its struggle against Israel or in Syria. “Hezbollah and their allies will address serious shortcomings and make up for mistakes made in the past,” Nasrallah vowed in his final pre-election speech.

For Hezbollah’s supporters, however, such mistakes pale in significance to its powerful security role. The party successfully convinced the vast majority of Shia voters in Baalbek that casting a vote for its candidates was akin to voicing their support for the party’s role in protecting them from what they see as threats in Israel and Syria. At the same time, Nasrallah lashed out at those running against the party: These figures, he said, “conspired with armed groups to occupy your towns,” reiterating his previous claim that opposition politicians are allies of the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadists.

Such rhetoric placed Shia politicians hoping to defeat Hezbollah at the ballot box in an impossible position. They wanted to divorce Hezbollah’s powerful military force from the campaign, fighting the election only on local issues, while Nasrallah made the case that you’re either with Hezbollah or against it. Again and again, opposition Shia figures voiced the same point: Nasrallah didn’t just want to beat them in an election—he wanted to silence them entirely.

“Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah wants to prove that he and his alliance are the holders of the Shia decision-making in Lebanon,” Yehya Chams, a former member of parliament who ran against Hezbollah in Baalbek, told me. “But there are others in Baalbek-Hermel that are partners. They can’t monopolize the decision and erase the space for others.”

The election results may do little to change how Lebanon is actually governed. Even parties that received a drubbing at the ballot box could very well retain their positions after the lengthy negotiations to form a governing coalition. The measures to which political elites have gone to entrench their rule led one politician to opine that Lebanon was not a democracy but a “plutocratic oligarchy.”

For Shia politicians who tried to oppose Hezbollah, it is particularly difficult to justify the result as a reflection of the popular will.

“Lebanon is supposed to be a democratic country,” Yaghi told me as I was leaving. “Everybody has the freedom to vote for who they want to vote for. But really, in fact, it’s not. You cannot vote for who you want to vote for. There are pressures in certain ways, people rely on various parties for their livelihood. So we have this statelet within a state, but in fact the statelet is much stronger than the state.”