Lebanon’s opposition faces a hard climb


With three days left until Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the predictions game, even though the dangers of that were apparent in 2005, when Michel Aoun turned most forecasts to mush. This time, however, things appear to be different.

It is almost certain that Aoun will emerge with the largest single Christian bloc in Parliament, whether alone or with allies such as Sleiman Franjieh and maybe Elie Skaff. However, the general’s aspiration to have the largest parliamentary bloc ever, as he recently stated, seems a very difficult wager to win. Even if Aoun does well, he will not do well enough to hand the opposition a majority, bearing in mind that a great deal can and will happen on Sunday that will shape the final outcome, given that this is the first time the Lebanese vote in a single day.

Here’s a simplistic view of the electoral situation. The opposition starts off with 33 guaranteed seats, between what it is bound to gain in the South (minus Sidon), Beirut II, and Baalbek-Hermel. That means that in predominantly Christian areas, Aoun and his allies would need to gain at least 32 seats in order for the opposition to earn a parliamentary majority. If we take each district from Zghorta down to Baabda and east to Zahleh, even excessively optimistic assessments of electoral results in favor of the opposition indicate that those 32 seats remain elusive.

For example, let’s assume the following results. If Franjieh and his allies win all three seats in Zghorta, Salim Saadeh wins a seat in Koura, Aoun sweeps the three seats in Jbeil and the five seats in Keserwan, wins five seats in the Metn, four seats in Baabda, one seat in Beirut I, and, through Skaff, three seats in Zahleh, the opposition would still need seven seats to win a slight legislative majority. Aounist projections are for sweeps everywhere, but that is highly improbable for several reasons.

First, the mood in the Christian community has changed in the past four years, so that the likelihood of the electorate voting complete lists is less than it was in 2005. Aoun retains a solid and mobilized core of voters, however it is not they alone who won him his victory four years ago; rather, it was nonaligned Christian voters angry with the quadripartite agreement between Walid Jumblatt, Saad Hariri, Nabih Berri, and Hizbullah, and sustained in their anger by the Maronite church.

A second reason is that Aoun may have committed a fatal blunder in earning the enmity of Michel Murr, as well as that of President Michel Sleiman and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. Sleiman can play a key role in tilting the vote in some districts through the army, and this in the most legal ways possible; meanwhile the church has subtle forms of sway over the electorate, much legitimacy, and a pulpit to get its ideas across.

However, it is Murr who perhaps poses the most direct threat to Aoun. Lebanese elections are only partly about ideas at this late stage. Ideas matter, but interests and hardnosed calculations will play a more critical role in determining what happens this year. When it comes to services, Murr is among the strongest players on the scene. Both in the Metn and Baabda, the economic lungs of Mount Lebanon, where business and industrial enterprises are concentrated, his clout comes through his ability to facilitate a multitude of essential administrative and legal procedures for his electorate. Murr has spent years placing people in the bureaucracy, local administrations, and the judiciary, and will call in his chips in the Metn as well as in Baabda and Beirut I, where his son in law, Edmond Gharios, and granddaughter, Nayla Tueni, are candidates.

It would also be a mistake to dismiss the prospect that, even at the last moment, Murr will be unable conclude an under-the-table deal that takes a bite out of Aoun’s alliance with the Armenians, the backbone of the general’s victory strategy in the Metn and Beirut I. Ultimately, Murr realizes, the Armenians see little interest in finding themselves out on a limb alone with Aoun, fighting against Murr and the Phalange Party in the Metn, and by extension on adversarial terms with Sleiman.

A third reason is that Aoun’s alliance with Hizbullah continues to worry a great majority of Christians. Aoun made a colossal gaffe this weekend in Batroun when he said that if an opposition-led government could not get money from the West, then it could always go to China. The statement got laughs, and Aoun did not say it with very much seriousness. But a politician cannot be flippant about such things. His remark alarmed many people because it seemed an admission that a government over which Hizbullah has influence will spell trouble for Lebanon in its relations with traditional economic partners and funders in Europe, the Gulf countries, and the United States. Most Lebanese would regard any form of financial or cultural isolation from these places as catastrophic.

Add that to the recent statement of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which he said that an opposition triumph in Lebanon would mean the opening of a new front against Israel, and you have several ingredients that might fuel Christian panic. Aoun has shown a notable ability to drive the community against its own history, profiting from its sense of decline, but there are hard limits to that game.

What all these factors may lead to, however, is not so much a devastating loss for Aoun, than a fragmenting of the Christian vote. Aoun did well in 2005 because his electorate voted complete lists; today, voters are much more likely to mix their lists, choosing candidates from both sides based on both loyalty and welfare. This means that Aoun will bleed support, and while he will probably not suffer a major setback (even if we cannot rule that out) since his electorate is motivated, he should come up short on an opposition victory. We’ll see Sunday who has egg on his or her face.

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In last week’s commentary on the Der Spiegel article, I mistakenly wrote that in August 2006 “the investigation of [telephone]intercepts was headed by ISF Captain Wissam Eid.” In fact, the head of the investigation at the time was Samir Shehadeh, who escaped an assassination attempt in September. Eid was his deputy, and took over the investigation afterward.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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