by Sune Haugbolle.
Here are my two cents on last Sunday’s Lebanese elections:
Saad al-Hariri’s March 14 coalition of Sunni, Druze and Christian parties retained control of parliament in elections on June 7, winning 71 of 128 seats.
The margin of the win – 68 plus three from associates against 57 for the opposing March 8 coalition – came as a surprise. The result effectively reproduces the parliament of the last four years, condemning Hizbollah and its allies to another electoral period in opposition. The prospect of a continued pro-Western government in Lebanon could aid US attempts to create momentum in regional peace negotiations.
Despite reports from international election observers of widespread vote-buying, Lebanon’s 2009 parliamentary elections were conducted relatively freely, fairly and quietly. Big crowds queued at polling stations for hours, and a sometimes hateful tone emerged in the electoral campaign. Yet heavy security ensured that voting took place without any major violent incidents. The peaceful picture was somewhat marred by gunfights near Tripoli yesterday evening between rival supporters.
Voter turnout surpassed 54%, a record in Lebanese history and 10% higher than the fiercely fought 2005 elections. The number signals a growing popular belief in Lebanon’s democracy since 2005, despite political unrest since the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, contrasting with poor showings at elections in the 1990s and early 2000s when Lebanon was under Syrian tutelage.
The high turnout may also have helped the March 14 coalition clinch a majority in key districts — Beirut I, Batroun, Koura, Besharreh and Tripoli. Elsewhere results were much as expected: March 14 dominated Beirut, the Shuf, most of north Lebanon, Western Bekaa and Zahle. Hizbollah and fellow Shia party Amal made clean sweeps in the south Lebanon districts of Nabatieh, Marjayoun, Hasbaya, Tyre, Bint Jubeil and Zahrani, while former General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) won all seats in the districts of Kesrouan, Byblos, Baabda and Jezzine.
Hizbollah officials have reacted graciously in defeat. The party won all eleven seats which it contested and can therefore argue that it won the elections even if March 8 did not. It will also feel that the result does not change the status quo. It will therefore insist on a blocking third in a unity government, allowing it to continue to obstruct the passing of legislation if necessary. Furthermore, Hizbollah will continue to make clear that it will not tolerate any questioning of its role as a resistance party, the legitimacy of its weapons arsenal, and the fact that Israel is an enemy state.
As several Lebanese commentators have suggested, the outcome may suit it better than winning a majority, which would have made it the governing party and forced it to produce results. Instead it now retains its well-rehearsed role as the critical oppositional voice, which may explain the rather low-key reception of the result.
For March 8’s other main constituent, Aoun’s FPM, the defeat will generate more soul-searching Aoun lost in key districts to rival Christian leaders from the Phalange and Lebanese Forces parties. This is the second major political defeat to Christian rivals for Aoun, having already lost the presidency to Michel Suleiman last year.
Aoun must face that he has failed to persuade the majority of Lebanon’s Christians with his programme based on anti-corruption, secularism and bridge-building with Lebanon’s Shia parties, amid widespread scepticism about Hizbollah. The defeat could lead to an internal coup in the FPM, whose younger leaders have previously voiced unhappiness with ‘the General’.
As leader of the majority party in parliament, Saad al-Hariri will be given the task of leading negotiations for a new government and set the direction of national policy. He will have no other choice than to aim for another all-embracing ‘unity government’, the third since 2005.
The key question is the extent to which March 14 will now use their relatively comfortable majority in negotiations. Hariri has signalled his unwillingness to grant the opposition veto power by giving them one-third of the seats in the new government, reasoning that it will lead to more paralysis of the kind that has stalled political life and lawmaking for long periods since 2005.
Hizbollah and its allies, on the other hand, will make veto power an absolute demand, arguing that the terms of the Doha agreement that resolved the crisis in May 2008 are still valid. Another problem is the post of Prime Minister. Following the successful elections and an electoral campaign which has seen him assume real leadership for the first time, Hariri may feel that now is his moment to seek the premiership. March 8 will likely oppose this, preferring a friendly candidate such as former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, or a more neutral figure like outgoing Premier Fouad Siniora.
These points of disagreement could lead to a drawn-out government formation process. In a worst-case scenario, Lebanon could be without a government for months, increasing the risk of violent clashes, and bringing back the fundamental schisms over which Lebanon’s political life has been log jammed for the last four years, namely Hizbollah’s weapons, support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and whether Lebanon should ally itself with Syria and Iran, or with the West and its Sunni Arab allies.
As always in Lebanon, much depends on the regional context. US President Barack Obama’s less confrontational approach and nascent Syrian-Saudi rapprochement may already have contributed to the calmer atmosphere. If the Obama administration’s regional peace efforts gain momentum, and the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria continues, a regional thaw could rub off on Lebanon.
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell will be in Beirut on June 14 for talks with Suleiman. A win for Mir Hossein Moussavi in this week’s Iranian elections and renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts could generate further optimism.
Such progress would lessen the mistrust between political parties in Lebanon. Hizbollah could accept Hariri as prime minister and even relinquish the blocking third in exchange for guarantees regarding its weapons. At the same time, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has been moving towards rapprochement with Syria and Hizbollah in recent months, could become a crucial bridging figure. And if all goes well, national defence strategy negotiations aimed at defining a national role for Hizbollah’s weapons could be resumed.
Suleiman stressed yesterday that a new government must focus on political and administrative reforms. His comments reflected fear that a new unity government could be just as sclerotic as the previous ones. After extended periods of political stalemate in the last four years, Lebanon faces a long list of overdue social and economic policy challenges.
First, there is the electoral law, which was amended last year but is still far from meeting international standards. It requires changes in order to secure a democratic transfer of power in the future.
Then there are overdue reforms of the judiciary, which is needed in order to tackle widespread corruption. And most pressingly, despite Lebanon’s success in riding out the international financial crisis, large sectors of society need to be integrated better in the economy through better education and job creation. Work is also needed to begin to bring down Lebanon’s 42 billion dollar foreign debt. All this will require the immediate attention of the new cabinet.
In conclusion, this election result leaves the balance of parliament unchanged and Lebanon’s underlying problems unaddressed, but has strengthened both the (perception of the) country’s democratic institutions and the legitimacy of the March 14 government. The formation of a unity government is likely to be delayed by fundamental disagreement over foreign policy and national security, but could be aided by any breakthrough in US peace efforts in the region.