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Edition 22 Volume 7 - June 11, 2009

Elections in Lebanon

Prospects for a new government  - Nizar Abdel-Kader
The opportunity remains open for Hariri to engage Nasrallah in constructive dialogue.

Hizballah's strategic goals remain intact  - Nicholas Blanford
Protecting its weapons remains Hizballah's principal motivation.

Outcomes and implications  - Habib C. Malik
As long as genuine political centrism remains weak, coalitions and inclusiveness must continue to be the best way for Lebanon.

Lebanon's elections highlight the limits of its political system  - Emilie Sueur
Lebanon has actually returned, politically-speaking, to the pre-election situation.


Prospects for a new government
 Nizar Abdel-Kader

Against the expectations of many pollsters and analysts, the official results of the elections in Lebanon, as announced by Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud on Monday, June 8 indicate that the March 14 coalition led by Saad Hariri won a majority of 71 seats in the 128-seat parliament.

The March 8 coalition, also known as the opposition, led by Hizballah and General Michel Aoun, won 51 seats--one less than its share in the outgoing parliament. It conceded defeat and said it would "accept the will of the people". Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech on June 8, "We accept these results with sportsmanship and in a democratic way, and we accept that the ruling camp has won the parliamentary majority." But he emphasized that the parliamentary majority is not the popular majority. Nasrallah linked the possibility of establishing a strong and capable state to the will of all the political parties on both sides of the political divide.

In reality, the opposition lost a significant popular vote in areas with a dominant Christian population such as Metn, Batroun, Koura, Zahle and Beirut, calling into question Aoun's claim to represent the majority (70%) of Christian voters. The key losers among the opposition leaders were former prime minister Omar Karami, MP Osama Saad in Sidon, Minister Elie Skaf in Zahle, Minister Gibran Bassil and Deputy Prime Minister Issam Abou Jamra in Beirut's first district.

Now that the elections are over, the most urgent and logical question to be asked is what kind of political interplay should be expected in the new parliament. The second question is whether, by maintaining the previous balance of power, Lebanon would replicate the schism that divides the political stage and revive rather than resolve the underlying conflicts between the two irreconcilable camps.

The Doha agreement brought Lebanon back from the brink of civil war, but the agreement was not intended to provide a permanent alternative to the constitutional text or to the Taif accord rules. The agreement provided a framework for a temporary truce and preserved all parties' fundamental interests. It opened the way to elect a new president and form a coalition government and prepared the ground for new parliamentary elections. Based on this agreement, it was presumed that the elections of June 7 would offer a real hope of resolving the political crisis and legitimizing the "new" majority rule.

Despite the sectarian and communitarian arguments that proliferated, the elections were more of a referendum on sovereignty than a simple vote to select individual members for the new parliament. This explains the high polarization of the campaign in both camps. External actors contributed to the polarization by taking sides more and more openly as the campaign progressed. Under the prospect of this continuing scenario, the confrontation between the March 14 coalition and the opposition will not end, though it may be pursued by different means and under new demands. One thing will not change--Hizballah's insistence on maintaining its role as an armed resistance force.

The March 14 coalition is truly justified in celebrating its victory: the opposition no longer has any reason to contest its real majority in the new parliament. These elections have given the March 14 coalition a very clear mandate.

The moderate speeches Saad Hariri delivered during the electoral campaign as well as during the March 14 victory declaration are proof he has earned the credentials of a leader. This opens the way for him to become the next prime minister without being contested by any of the opposition factions. What gives Saad Hariri even more credit is that the win came under an electoral law that was designed by the opposition to give it an edge.

The peril of having Hizballah control the parliament and the new government has passed. Yet uncertainty as to whether the opposition will revert to old practices is still there. The leaders of the opposition have reiterated on several occasions their demand to preserve both the armed resistance and veto power in the new government.

With the renewed March 14 majority, there will be no radical change in policy. The coalition is expected to offer to form a new government, but so far has made it clear that it will not grant the opposition veto power in it. Disagreement over this point remains the major obstacle to the process of forming the government and may lead to a renewed crisis and violence on the street as it did last year. According to some sources in the March 14 coalition, a compromise might be to award veto power to President Michel Suleiman rather than to the opposition. But this would be challenged by Aoun, who has already accused the president of aligning himself with the majority.

The opportunity remains open for Hariri to engage Nasrallah in constructive dialogue designed to get his support to form a new government with a clear agenda focusing on political and administrative reform. Priority would be given to a new electoral law while all controversial issues, including defense strategy and the future of the resistance and its weapons would be assigned to the National Dialogue forum. If they cannot achieve such a breakthrough, both camps will prepare for a new crisis that would return the country to a state of chaos and instability.- Published 11/6/2009 bitterlemons-international.org


Nizar Abdel-Kader is a political analyst/columnist at Ad-Diyar newspaper in Beirut. He has authored four books on Lebanon and regional political and strategic issues.


Hizballah's strategic goals remain intact
 Nicholas Blanford

By midnight June 8, as it became increasingly clear that the March 14 coalition had retained its majority, a stubborn disbelief prevailed in Hizballah's stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut. "No, it's impossible that they won. It's still too soon to tell," one Hizballah supporter insisted.

By the next morning, however, the results had been confirmed: the final tally gave the March 14 bloc 68 seats in the 128-seat parliament along with three allied independents to the opposition's 57.

For an election that was the closest-fought in more than three decades--the results of which had been impossible to predict with any certainty right up until the seven am opening of the polling stations--it was not an insignificant victory for March 14.

Saad Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement, the main Sunni political body, probably will be the next prime minister; his aides were admitting he would stand for the post even before the final results were confirmed.

The outcome, however, could mark the political demise of Michel Aoun, the Christian opposition leader. Although he still heads the largest Christian bloc in the new parliament, the defeat of the opposition was largely due to his inability to rally the majority of Christians to his side. Indeed, some of his elected candidates owe their success to non-Christian voters--the Shi'ites in Jbeil and Jezzine and the Armenians in Metn.

The March 14 victory is a setback for Hizballah which had hoped that an opposition win would provide a protective seal around its military wing.

Contrary to scare-mongering rhetoric from some Israeli and western officials, Hizballah had no desire or interest in assuming control of the state if the opposition had triumphed.

Hizballah's history of participation in Lebanese constitutional politics has always been one of necessity rather than ambition. In 1992, after a heated internal debate, it submitted candidates for the first post-civil war election in recognition that a parliamentary presence would help sustain the party and the resistance in the new era of Pax Syriana. It neither sought, nor was asked, to join successive governments until 2005 following Syria's disengagement from Lebanon when it entered the first government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Hizballah appreciated that the absence of Syria's protective umbrella required a more direct political engagement in order to defend its resistance priority.

The same holds true today. Protecting its weapons, not running the Lebanese state, remains Hizballah's principal motivation for political participation. If the opposition had won, Hizballah probably would have preferred to fade into the background, leaving its allies to helm the government on a daily basis.

The party has invested enormous effort and expense in rebuilding and honing its military capabilities since the 2006 war with Israel. The level of recruitment, training and rearming is unprecedented in its 27-year history.

Hizballah officials do not disguise the extent of the build-up, even if they are circumspect on the details. Even Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah found time to state that Hizballah has more weapons than at any time since 1982 during his televised speech on June 8 in which he acknowledged defeat at the polls.

The March 14 bloc has said it is open to forming another government of national unity, while ruling out the option of offering the opposition a veto-wielding share of cabinet seats. The Doha agreement of May 2008 granted the opposition a blocking third as a conciliatory gesture to ease tensions following the factional fighting that month in Beirut and the Chouf. But it was intended as a once-only measure to last until the June 2009 election.

The dilemma facing Hizballah is that without the one-third blocking share, it is vulnerable to fresh attempts to disarm its military wing. Mohammed Raad, the head of Hizballah's parliamentary bloc, quickly set the tone for future negotiations over the composition and agenda of the government. "The majority must commit not to question our role as a resistance party, the legitimacy of our weapons arsenal and the fact that Israel is an enemy state," he told Agence France Presse a day after the polls.

On the other hand, what action is Hizballah--the most powerful political and military entity in the country--prepared to take to persuade March 14 to back down and re-offer the blocking share?

Much depends on the wisdom of March 14. If its leaders feel emboldened by its electoral mandate and continued US and Saudi support to begin maneuvering to weaken Hizballah's hold over its weapons, it surely will provoke a fresh crisis. - Published 11/6/2009 bitterlemons-international.org


Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.


Outcomes and implications
 Habib C. Malik

Lebanon's parliamentary elections received unprecedented regional and international attention. They are now over, with the Sunni-dominated March 14 political alliance led by Saad Hariri emerging as the clear winner. While this outcome may be comforting to Washington and its Arab allies and perhaps reassuring for Israel, it leaves the internal Lebanese political landscape somewhat dislocated and open to a reshuffling of political alliances.

From the start, the results of the ballot were fairly predictable in Lebanon's predominantly Sunni and Shi'ite electoral districts where single powerful leaders or parties tend to prevail. Whole blocs of candidates from these regions won landslide victories because they met with no significant competition. So any contest on election day was really going to take place in the politically divided and largely Christian areas of Mount Lebanon, East Beirut, northern Lebanon and the Christian Bekaa city of Zahle and its surroundings.

Here two opposed political alliances among the Christians faced off to battle over which set of communal phobias were scarier: Hizballah's weapons, its ties to Iran and its continued posture as an autonomous resistance movement against Israel--fears trumpeted by Christians allied with March 14; or domination by Saudi Arabian political priorities, the prospect of naturalizing 400,000 overwhelmingly Sunni Palestinian refugees and creeping Wahhabi-style Islamization--fears underscored by Christians partnering with Hizballah as part of the Lebanese opposition. Election results show that the first set of fears, namely those involving Hizballah, proved deeper and more decisive in shaping the choices of the Christian electorate.

Actually, Hizballah itself is partly responsible for a last-minute stirring of latent apprehensions among many followers of its political ally, Christian leader Michel Aoun. During the two-week period preceding the elections and in a series of televised speeches, Hizballah chiefs hyped up the defiant rhetoric and flaunted their Iranian military connections, a tactic that had the intended or inadvertent effect of repelling anxious Christian voters and offering their political rivals added ammunition to use against them. In retrospect, Hizballah might have calculated that it is better off remaining in the opposition than being burdened with the risky responsibilities of governing. Still, those fiery speeches undoubtedly contributed to slowing the momentum of an ascendant Christian ally.

Hizballah aside, the fact remains that Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement were viciously targeted by Hariri's Saudi-backed and funded coalition supported by the US and a number of Sunni Arab regimes. Aoun and his candidates found themselves facing stiff, lavishly financed challenges in nearly every district. The all-important district of Zahle was wrenched away from him, and he was kept out of whole Christian districts like east Beirut and parts of north-central Lebanon. At no expense to them, thousands of emigrants were flown in from across the globe to cast their votes for Hariri's allies (the same tactic, though in far fewer numbers, was adopted by the Armenian component of the opposition). Unabashed bribing of candidates by municipality and other officials at polling stations and related violations was reported by both sides. Most ominously, wholesale transfer of registered Sunni voters--some 12,000 in all--to the Zahle district tipped the balance in favor of Hariri's coalition. Curiously, and despite the odds stacked against Aoun, the election outcome added three seats to his reconfigured parliamentary coalition, giving him 24 out of 57 seats for the opposition, which leaves 71 seats for the March 14 majority out of a total of 128 seats in Lebanon's parliament. Aoun still emerges as the most powerful Christian leader, but disputes over the extent of the popular Christian vote his coalition received will persist for some time.

Implications of the opposition's defeat include the continuation with slight variations of the political polarization that has beset the country since the previous elections in 2005. Buoyed by the new mandate and confirmation of its majority status, March 14 now faces the daunting task of outlining its priorities and the manner in which it intends to deal with the opposition. As long as genuine political centrism remains weak, coalitions and inclusiveness must continue to be the best way forward for Lebanon.

March 14's victory also means a further distancing of prospects for violence with Israel. Hizballah was deterred offensively after the 2006 war and the 2009 Israel-Hamas showdown in Gaza, while it possesses a defensive deterrent against external attack. The solution to Hizballah's arms is contingent on what happens between Washington and Tehran.

Lastly, there are increasing calls for a radical revision of the current electoral law that favors the smaller district. It was this law, for example, that allowed Aoun to claim from his political ally, Shi'ite Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the three seats of the Christian district of Jezzine in south Lebanon, an election outcome that caused celebrations in the streets by Jezzine's inhabitants. Barring heavy irregularities and flagrant electoral violations, it is axiomatic that the smaller the district, the better the sectarian representation becomes. Changes to the electoral law therefore need to be mindful of not disenfranchising any legitimate religious confession by placing the representation of smaller communities at the mercy of the larger ones.- Published 11/6/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org


Habib C. Malik is associate professor of history at the Lebanese American University (Byblos campus).


Lebanon's elections highlight the limits of its political system
 Emilie Sueur

On June 7, Lebanon held parliamentary elections that were applauded by the international community. For the first time, the elections were held in one single day. The whole voting process was held without major security incidents, despite the high level of tension that prevails in Lebanon.

Turnout was significant, and the elections resulted in a clear victory for the March 14 alliance led by Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim. After the announcement of the results, the winners called upon their followers not to show excessive triumphalism, and the vanquished Hizballah-headed opposition accepted the outcome of the polls.

All these elements indicate an overall healthy democracy. The June 7 elections do, however, highlight the limits of the Lebanese political system.

Although the victory of March 14 is indisputable--it won 71 of 128 parliamentary seats against 57 for the opposition--the winning alliance will be forced to share power. The formation of a government of national unity is the only way for the Lebanese Shi'ite community (which overwhelmingly backs Hizballah) to be represented in power. As the Lebanese context is characterized by deep Sunni-Shi'ite polarization and strong political sectarianism, keeping the Shi'ites from power would lead to an inescapable political crisis.

Besides, the opposition demands a blocking minority in the next government. The opposition previously benefitted from this veto power in the outgoing cabinet. The majority continues to reject any such request, as it considers a blocking minority "unconstitutional".

Consequently, many fear at best long negotiations over the formation of the government and at worst a new political crisis.

Moreover, this situation of power-sharing between the majority and the opposition is definitely not favorable for the adoption of much-needed political, social and economic reforms. In short, after an election that both sides called "crucial" to the future of Lebanon, the country has actually returned, politically-speaking, to the pre-election situation.

The victory of the March 14 alliance is also likely to produce no change on another very sensitive issue: the question of the weapons of Hizballah. Right after the announcement of the election outcome, Hizballah officials reiterated that "the arms of the resistance are not up for discussion." This is a declaration that no one in Lebanon will take lightly. In May 2008, an attempt by the Siniora government to dismantle a parallel telecommunication network of Hizballah resulted in Hizballah militias taking control of West Beirut in a few hours.

Once again, it appears that the evolution of the regional context is what might influence political developments in Lebanon. Actually, it is probably here where the electoral victory of the March 14 coalition--or more precisely, defeat of the Hizballah-led alliance--might have a noticeable effect.

An electoral victory by the Hizballah-led coalition would most certainly have led to heightened regional tension. Israel would have had a hard time dealing with a neighboring territory governed by one of its toughest enemies. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both of whom backed the March 14 alliance, would have been irritated by the boost a Hizballah victory would have given to Iran.

With the victory of the March 14 coalition, a kind of regional status quo prevails. This should allow the ongoing normalization process between Saudi Arabia and Syria to continue, as well as attempts to start a dialogue between Tehran and Washington. Any positive outcomes from these processes should, in turn, have a positive impact on Lebanese politics. - Published 11/6/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org


Emilie Sueur is a Beirut-based correspondent for French and Belgian newspapers.




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