On the presidency, look at Hezbollah


There has been much speculation in Beirut about how to get Lebanon out of its presidential impasse. The focus has been on convincing the main Maronite candidates to withdraw in favor of someone who is acceptable to all, an approach regarded as the key to ending the current stalemate.

With all the attention on the Maronites, relatively little consideration has been given to Hezbollah, which remains the most influential elector in Lebanon and, with Iran, perhaps in the region. Conveniently for Hezbollah, the Maronite rivalry has filled the foreground, and may continue to do so for some time. But it is the background, and Hezbollah’s interests, that may tell us what the ultimate outcome will be in the presidency.

For some time Hezbollah has viewed the Lebanese situation as part and parcel of the Syrian situation. The party always considered its success in strengthening Syrian President Bashar Assad as a check that also had to be cashed in Lebanon. As Assad consolidates in Syria, Hezbollah intends to do the same at home, where the Syrian civil war repeatedly gave hope to the party’s domestic foes that its domination could be challenged.

With Hezbollah now believing that the tide has turned in Syria, it is moving ahead with this project. The party did two things last year to prepare the ground. It pushed for an extension of Jean Kahwagi’s term as Army commander, in order to maintain his relevance in the presidential pre-election period, even though this angered Michel Aoun, who had hoped his son-in-law, Shamel Roukoz, would replace Kahwagi. And Hezbollah worked to delay parliamentary elections – partly by having another ally, Nabih Berri, divisively push for an impossible agreement over an election law, partly by going along with the argument that the security situation did not permit an election.

With these two pieces in place, Hezbollah bought valuable time to go on the offensive in Syria, playing a vital role in helping Assad’s forces recapture the Qalamoun district. In that way it cut off the link between Syria and Lebanon and reinforced the Syrian regime’s hold over the communications lines between Damascus and Homs, and Homs and the Syrian coast.

Kahwagi has been Hezbollah’s candidate from the start, and very little appears to have changed in its position. The party always expected a mash-up between the Maronite presidential contenders, so it was a question of maneuvering around this for a time, even if it perpetuated a temporary vacuum, while setting up the conditions for the election of its nominee.

That’s why Aoun, who is perfectly aware of Hezbollah’s plan, has been so busy trying to make himself relevant to both the party and to Walid Jumblatt, who can hand him a majority. The recent leak to Al-Joumhouria, in which Aoun said that it was necessary to accept the fact that Assad could win in Syria, was directed at the first; his statement that he would participate in elections on the basis of the 1960 law was aimed at the second.

Part of Aoun’s implicit message to the Future Movement has derived from this logic: Either you vote for me, or you will have to face a Hezbollah candidate. Today Aoun’s insistence on blocking any compromise figure is directed even more against Hezbollah than it is against March 14, since once the principle of compromise is accepted, Kahwagi’s chances will go up, bolstered by the fact that the Army commander has led successful security plans in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley.

That’s why Samir Geagea’s accusation on Wednesday that Aoun was responsible for blocking the election was music to Hezbollah’s ears. Only if inter-Christian rivalries rise can all the principal candidates be discredited, opening the door to a Hezbollah candidate. But Aoun, for all his stubbornness and opportunism, is not the main issue. The issue is Hezbollah’s agenda. In this context we should look ahead at the second part of the party’s plan, namely winning the parliamentary elections.

Hezbollah believes, with good reason, that March 14 will not win a majority in the forthcoming elections. Even on the basis of the 1960 law, the breakdown of parliamentary seats will probably be roughly similar to what it is today, with Jumblatt retaining a balancing role. That is why Hezbollah wants to preserve its relationship with Aoun, whatever their momentary disagreements over the presidency.

Aoun, too, has an interest in preserving a good relationship with the party. Even if he doesn’t become president, he would retain significant power as head of the largest Christian bloc. And for that to happen, Aoun needs Hezbollah’s Shiite votes in several key districts, particularly Baabda, Jbeil and Jezzine.

The potential loser in all this is March 14. The coalition took its hardest knock when Jumblatt headed for the political center. It’s possible this will lose him two Druze seats in the West Bekaa and Beirut. But then again both Jumblatt and Saad Hariri may benefit from reconciling. Jumblatt has as much to gain by securing Sunni votes as Aoun does by winning Shiite votes. As for Hariri, he only loses by alienating Jumblatt.

How might Hezbollah set up a Kahwagi victory? It’s difficult to say. There are those who argue that as there is a vacuum today, no constitutional amendment is needed to bring the Army commander to office. That’s imaginative. Some fear the party will manipulate the security situation to make Kahwagi more appealing. Whatever happens the situation will have to fester until the mood is ripe for Hezbollah’s chosen solution.

Kahwagi’s candidacy will also need Sunni backing. Unless the Saudis give a green light to their Lebanese allies, the general will face serious obstacles in his path. The weeks ahead will reveal what the presidential election is really about, and they will better expose Hezbollah’s role in preparing for its preferred end game.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

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