international analysis and commentary

The Lebanese puzzle at the polls

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Two of the rules that have come to define Lebanese politics during the past three decades were given a new lease on life by the outcome of Sunday’s polls. Rule number one is that there is no victor and no vanquished in the never-ending struggle over Lebanon’s identity. No force has been defeated in any existential sense. The elections have merely given a new mandate to a majority that was already there: the Western-backed “March 14th” coalition (a coalition of the al-Mustaqbal movement, the Socialist Progressive party and the Kta’eb – or phalanges), which took 68 seats (plus three seats for independents). The opposition (a coalition of Hezbollah and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement FPM) won 57 seats.

Rule number two is that confessional politics have emerged yet again as the mover and shaker, motivating hundreds of thousands of Lebanese voters (turnout is estimated at 1,495,000 of 3,275,000 registered voters, or 54.8%) to storm the ballot boxes. Lebanon went to the polls amid a wave of sectarian tension and political polarization unprecedented since the end of the 15-year civil war which ended with the Taif Agreement of 1991.

But it is hardly surprising that the election outcome did not result in a radical change of the parameters which long defined Lebanese politics. Lebanese Interior Minister Ziad Baroud himself said that the June 7th election “was not going to produce any substantive change in the political system.”

However, some facts are worth mentioning. Lebanon’s Sunnis have been the Trojan horse in this election, with a record-high vote turnout in Sunni-dominated cities of northern Lebanon. They handed the “March 14th” coalition its majority by voting in huge numbers in Christian-dominated constituencies like Zahle and Koura. The key ally in the coalition, the Al-Mustaqbal movement and its leader Saad al-Hariri, strengthened their leadership over Lebanon’s Sunnis. On the other side of the political spectrum, the head of the FPM Michael Aoun, thanks mainly to his close alliance with Hezbollah, managed to win the support of at least half of Lebanon’s Christian voters. Despite his relative decline compared to 2005, Aoun still represents the main Christian interlocutor for Saad Hariri in a possible new government.

As for Hezbollah, eleven of its candidates made it to Parliament, allowing this religious party to claim that it successfully passed a sort of referendum on its popularity. And yet, election forecasts had put Hezbollah in the driver’s seat and the “14th March” coalition lagging behind in terms of popularity and chances of imposing itself at the ballots. In this sense, the result has been a partial surprise, and of course a welcome one especially from a US perspective. In fact, it could pave the way for closer dialogue and cooperation between Washington (as well as the West in general) and the upcoming Lebanese government.

Having said this, the majority will no doubt face some very contentious issues, including the shape of the new government and its mandate, the role granted to the president (by tradition a Christian Maronite, meant to mediate between the two factions, “March 8th” and “March 14th”), and finally the emergence of a new centrist bloc, ending the acute political polarization between the two main coalitions. The idea surfaced some two months before the elections. According to unconfirmed press reports, this bloc might include forces from both “March 14th” and “March 8th” such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berry as well as other independent Christian figures. Such a bloc would be aligned with President Michael Sulyieman.

Looming not far in the background is the fate awaiting national dialogue, an exercise at national reconciliation among the Lebanese political forces which was deeply blocked on a nearly non-negotiable issue, namely the definition of a national defense strategy. Under this label, it should be stressed, lies an existential request of the old and new coalition: getting rid of Hezbollah’s arms. And yet, even on this very contentious issue, the Obama administration – as part of its ongoing Mideast outreach policy – has dropped the official request (although it did hint that in case of a decisive victory for Hezbollah, the flow of financial aid to Beirut would have been suspended).

While both the opposition and the majority are speaking the language of national reconciliation, forming a new government constitutes the first challenge to their commitment to unity. Even before the ballots were counted, President Michael Sulieman said the post-election government must be one of national unity. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt spoke against “excluding any party from the new cabinet”, but also described this as “an innovation that is not in the Lebanese constitution”. This scenario, known as the “blocking third” mechanism, was first proposed by the opposition during the 18-month political deadlock from November 2006 to May 2008 when the five Shia ministers quit the cabinet. They agreed to return under the condition that the opposition receive the right to veto any resolutions passed by the majority in cabinet in order to end what they perceived as a monopoly of power by the “March 14th” forces. In the national unity government, which resulted from the Doha agreement of May 2008, the opposition was granted that right. But the opposition alliance has made clear that its participation in any national unity government is conditional on it being able to wield veto power.

There are indeed fears that if the opposition and majority fail to reach an agreement over a national unity government the country might enter into a period similar to that experienced from November 2006 to May 2008, when all state institutions were paralyzed. However, most observers point out that the regional context has changed dramatically. Syria and Saudi Arabia, the two regional players with the most influence in Lebanon, are engaged in reconciliation talks. Syria is being courted by US diplomacy, with engagement overtly aimed at disentangling Damascus from Tehran. Last year’s diplomatic attempts at Syrian-Israeli dialogue mediated by Ankara might resurface again, provided the Israeli PM keeps the hard-line elements of his coalition under control. The weight of Damascus, after its support of some Lebanese political forces (President Sleiman and Parliament speaker Nabih Berri), seems weakened in the aftermath of the consolidation of the “March 8th” forces: this will push Syria even more strongly towards regional reconciliation initiatives.

Regionally, after Friday’s elections in Iran with the apparent victory by Ahmadinejad followed by major unrest, prospects for international dialogue over the nuclear program have become bleaker. This might also result in an attempt by an increasingly isolated Islamic Republic to more closely tie Hezbollah to what Tehran regards as its agenda for regional cultural hegemony.
It will be a hard task though, given the growing autonomy Hezbollah seems to have secured.

On the other front, the new Israeli government led by Netanyahu is reluctantly accepting the possibility to establish an independent, though de-militarized, Palestinian state, after serious pressure from Washington. Jerusalem, however, is ruling out an immediate diplomatic overture towards Damascus concerning the disputed Golan Heights, a decision supported by more than 60% of the Israeli public. In order to avoid isolation and irrelevance, Syria is looking more and more towards Washington’s mediation, and will probably sacrifice part of its previous influence in Lebanon in exchange for the assurance of pursuing better relations with the US.