Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon. Reuters
The announcement of Lebanon’s Sunni Prime Minister Najib Mikati that he would not run for the election due on May 15 has come as a further jolt after former prime minister Saad Hariri had said in January that he would not be contesting in the elections. Hariri also said that his Future Movement party will also not contest. Another Sunni prime minister, Tamman Salam, had also withdrawn from the contest. This creates a crisis in Lebanon’s politics, where Sunnis, Shias and Maronite Christians share political power in the constitutional system, where a Maronite Christian will be the president, a Sunni will be a prime minister and a Shia will be the speaker of the 128-member parliament.
As was inevitable, there was a tussle for political power and influence among the three groups. But this tussle has cast a long shadow on Lebanese politics. For example, the inquiry into the 2020 blast of an ammonium nitrate warehouse in 2020, which killed 200 people and caused immense damage to the buildings in the vicinity, could be pursued as the Shia group had strong objections against the judge. For a long time, the Maronite Christian president had enjoyed Syrian support even as the Shia group, led by the militant Hezbollah, was backed by Iran. The Sunni group had the support of Saudi Arabia. Pulled in different directions, the Lebanese polity was paralysed in terms of its functioning.
Lebanon had descended into economic chaos, and the majority of the six million population are without jobs and they are on the brink of penury. The oil and food prices had shot up, and the people were running out of their savings. As a matter of fact, the strong protest movement against the government that broke out in 2019 was because of the failure of the government to manage the economy. Ever since, the situation had deteriorated even as the political players failed to arrive at a compromise and consensus about the way to deal with the economic crisis. Through 2021, it became difficult even to form a government for Saad al-Hariri and he withdrew.
It looks like the Sunni political leaders in Lebanon are facing a dead-end, and the decision of Hariri and Mikati is seen as a sign of the despair of the Sunni politicians. Lebanon-watchers believe that there would be a veritable constitutional crisis if the Sunnis boycott the elections. The Sunnis have 27 seats in the 128-member parliament. Mikati in his address had asked Sunnis to go out and vote, and though the Future Movement, Hariri’s party, is not fielding candidates, there are Sunni candidates in the electoral fray.
Lebanon’s minister of economy and trade Amin Salam said that he is working to restore trade relations of Lebanon with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Lebanon’s GDP fell from $52 billion in 2019 to $33.38 billion in 2020 and an estimated $21.8 billion in 2021, a steep fall among 193 countries. Lebanon is trying to restore its credibility in its trade relations with its Arab neighbours because of drug smuggling from Lebanon into these countries. Salam acknowledged that the way to improve trade ties is “an ongoing exercise because there’s a trust element that needs to be earned.” In the short term, Lebanon faces a possible wheat shortage because it imports most of its wheat from Ukraine. Lebanon’s existing wheat reserves can only last for 45 to 60 days. But Salam has said there is no need to get into the panic mode and that 50,00 tonnes of wheat are being imported. The nub of the problem lies in what the World Bank’s Lebanon Economic Monitor describes as the elites seizing power and profiting from the economic rents.