Political life in Lebanon is affected by the diversity of religious sects and the religious basis of social organization. The mainly Christian groups, especially the Maronites, favor an independent course for Lebanon, stressing its ties to Europe and opposing the appeals of Islam and pan-Arabism. The Muslim groups favor closer ties with Arab states and are opposed to confessionalism (political division along religious lines). Principal political groups, with mainly Christian membership, are the National Liberal Party and the Phalangist Party. There are various parties of the left, including the Progressive Socialist Party (of mostly Druze membership), the Ba'ath Party, and the Lebanese Communist Party. The various Palestinian groups, allied under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization, played an important role in the political life of Lebanon from the late 1960s until Israel's invasion drove them from the country in the 1980s. Amal, a conservative grouping, and Hezbollah, more militant, represent the Shi'i community. The former gained eighteen seats and the latter twelve seats in the elections of 1992. The Christian community, which was supposed to have half the seats, largely boycotted the elections and, as a result, won only fifty-nine seats.
There are currently at least eighteen religious-based political parties in Lebanon. In 1996, parliamentary elections were again held, and again certain Christian sects called for a boycott. Still, turnout was much higher than in the 1992 elections, reflecting the country's increasing political stability (turnout was about 45%). International observers found the elections substantially fair, but noted some irregularities, including Syrian interference, vote buying and ballot stuffing. The government itself acknowledges these shortcoming and has instituted some reforms.
The 1996 elections took place in five stages between August and September. The balloting gave a strong majority to a coalition of pro-Syrian parties, notably the Hezbollah-Amal coalition. There were forty-nine newcomers elected—three of whom were female—and nineteen seats were being contested on charges of voter fraud. Following the election, Prime Minister al-Hariri stepped down, as is tradition, so that President Hrawi and the new parliament could chose a new prime minister. In late October, the parliament, with presidential backing, nominated al-Hariri for his second term, as was expected. The vote in parliament was 121-0 with four abstentions.
Al-Hariri, a billionaire, is one of the richest men in the world: in 1996 there were three billionaires and thirty-five millionaires in parliament. Asked by Lahoud to be prime minister in 1998, Salim al-Huss became prime minister after al-Hariri abruptly resigned office. Al-Hariri was asked by President Lahoud to become prime minister once again in October 2000; he received 107 parliamentary votes backing him.
Palestinian refugees have no right to vote, despite numbering approximately 350,000 in 2003.