Lebanon’s elections: an early inquest


The elections of 2009 ended with multiple contradictory messages, never surprising for Lebanon. Perhaps most importantly, however, it was a voting process with genuine stakes, characterized by genuine competition in several constituencies. How refreshing when regional elections are, typically, bland referendums stage-managed by despots.

The election will be remembered because of the erroneous predictions surrounding it. A flagrant one, offered up in this space with much conviction last week, is that confused Christian voters would mix their candidate lists. Precisely the opposite happened, as electoral blocs, and even independents – confused not a bit – placed their lists in ballot boxes relatively unchanged. This showed that the power of political leaders and parties to bring obedient voting blocs to the polls was greater than ever; that independent Christians for the most part voted on the basis of conviction, in this case against Michel Aoun and Hizbullah; and that Lebanon remains divided between two broad coalitions, so that the elections, while revealing a fundamental shift away from the choices of the opposition, also little changed the broad power balance in the country.

The election was a convincing victory for March 14, proving that the coalition could gain a decisive majority without depending on so-called independents; and could do so on the basis of a law favoring the opposition. Saad Hariri will be the next prime minister, putting an end to speculation about when he might take office. He has a mandate and maneuvered astutely in the pre-election period, tiptoeing through minefields to satisfy most of his partners. He also managed to co-opt his potential Sunni rivals, thereby consolidating his hold over the community after a period when this was in doubt. This will not only boost Hariri’s credentials in Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world; it signals that he has finally extracted himself from the May 2008 debacle.

Hariri’s main allies, Samir Geagea and Walid Jumblatt, have quite different readings of the results. Geagea gambled in some regions, but ultimately expanded his representation, between party members and non-party candidates he supported. He still remains well behind Aoun in terms of his parliamentary share, but he ran a well-organized campaign, increasing his political weight in relative terms, and showed that he was a player in key constituencies like Zahleh and Beirut. This was always mainly about the 2013 elections for Geagea and his preparations for the post-Aoun period, since the general will be almost 80 in four years, if he lives. In that sense the Lebanese Forces leader achieved most of his goals.

Jumblatt, predictably, did well in the Chouf and Aley, but suffered two major setbacks in terms of his more general strategy. He lost the Druze parliamentarian Ayman Choukair in Baabda (after having left a seat open for Talal Arslan in Aley), shrinking his bloc, and he did so at the hands of an alliance of Maronites and Shiites, signaling they could choose the Druze representative in the district in the future. If this was not bitter enough a pill for Jumblatt to swallow, it was compounded by the fact that he had banked heavily on his opening to the Shiites and his alliance with the speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, to help Choukair win. That quaint idea collapsed as the Shiite community voted en masse in favor of Aoun. This proved the real limitations of Jumblatt’s rapprochement with Berri, which both viewed as the embryo of a centrist bloc friendlier to Syria.

Michel Aoun once more managed a paradox. He came out of the election stronger, amid signs that his popular Christian support is in discernible decline. He will control the largest single Christian bloc in Parliament, and this he will use as leverage to continue insisting that he is the preeminent Maronite representative, particularly in his rapport with Saad Hariri and the Sunni community. However, his win margins were noticeably smaller than they were in 2005; he needed the Shiite vote to win in several Christian-majority districts; and a large number of Christians voted explicitly against him, showing that he continues to have zero capacity to unite the community. There was also something deeply symbolic in the rejection of Jebran Bassil in Batroun and Issam Abu Jamra in Beirut, both leading figures in the Free Patriotic Movement.

Hizbullah cannot be displeased with the results. It was always a win-win situation for the party anyway. The majority lead held by March 14 is roughly what it was four years ago, and with Hariri as prime minister, Hizbullah feels it will be able to put a credible Sunni face on the defense of its armed « resistance. » The party also senses, rightly or wrongly, that it has greater leverage over Hariri with him in the government than outside it. Hizbullah wagered heavily on Aoun and that wager ultimately paid off, to the extent that Aoun owes the party. He will say that he broke Nabih Berri in Jezzine, Walid Jumblatt in Baabda, and President Michel Sleiman in Jbeil, but he won’t admit that this was thanks to Hizbullah.

Most significantly, the election results were a setback for Syria. They allowed Hizbullah to maintain its autonomy from the Syrians, who had hoped to use the elections to reassert themselves in Lebanon with regard to Iran. While no one should seriously expect an Iranian-Syrian rift in the foreseeable future, the Syrians would have dearly liked to confirm that Lebanon is more theirs than Tehran’s, particularly in the context of their possible negotiations with Israel and an opening to the United States. This failed, as those on whom the Syrians had pinned their hopes – Michel Sleiman, Nabih Berri, Michel Murr, and those in their circle – all emerged as the great electoral losers. Lebanon’s Parliament will be friendlier to Syria than the previous one was, but it won’t by any stretch be Syria’s Parliament. And irony of ironies: the Assad regime will now have to look toward Saad Hariri, not Sleiman, as the conduit for their normalization with Lebanon – normalization the Saudis will certainly encourage – which should grant Hariri greater clout in shaping that relationship.

What happens next? There is a consensus in March 14 that the opposition should not be handed veto power in the government, and Michel Sleiman, stung by Aoun’s challenge and what Hizbullah did to him, may come down on the majority’s side here. That’s a good thing. We’re in for weeks of bargaining over a government, but there is a lasting message in these elections: March 14 was written off too soon by too many people. It may not be the most impressive of coalitions, but it represents Lebanon’s real temperate center – with its life force neither perpetual resistance nor perpetual resentment. Lebanon benefits from its victory.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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