Aoun Becoming Kingmaker, Maybe President

BEIRUT – Lebanon’s formerly anti-Syrian General Michel Aoun is on the verge of outmaneuvering the country’s main anti-Syrian opposition alliance. All eyes are now on the last round of Lebanon’s four-stage parliamentary elections, next Sunday in the north.

A spokesman for Aoun conceded that the "general," as his followers still call him, now has a "very good chance" to hold the balance of power in parliament between the anti-Syrian movement and pro-Syrian groupings. This follows Aoun’s stunning upset last Sunday in the Christian heartland of Mt. Lebanon, where he made large gains at the expense of the opposition.

For next Sunday’s round in the north, Aoun has once again allied himself with some of the country’s most prominent pro-Syrian politicians. This has drawn accusations from opposition leaders that he is playing into Syria’s hands by weakening them.

Aoun’s spokesman Toni Nasrallah all but confirmed that weakening the opposition is part of the general’s game plan. The prospect of a huge opposition victory, as predicted at the outset of the long election cycle, would have marginalized him.

The opposition leaders played a large role in the mass street protests that followed the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February this year. These protests, along with international pressure, led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country after a presence of 29 years.

Aoun returned from exile last month after a 14-year Syrian-imposed exile in France. He had led the army in an anti-Syrian uprising in 1989-1990.

Toni Nasrallah dismissed opposition claims that the general had now turned pro-Syrian by allying himself with certain politicians. He said that many in the opposition movement of Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, and the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt had themselves been pro-Syrian in the past.

The rhetoric in the now hotly contested elections has gone up a few notches since the first two rounds that led to predictable victories in Beirut by the anti-Syrian Hariri movement and in the south by the pro-Syrian Shi’ite Hezbollah and Amal movements.

The opposition had assumed that it was heading for certain victory in the center and east of the country, but that scenario was scuttled by Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement and his unexpected alliances with pro-Syrian candidates.

The result has been a much weakened opposition movement that after three rounds holds 46 seats. Amal and Hezbollah control 33, and Aoun unexpectedly has 21.

In the north, 28 seats are at stake. Mahmoud Haddad, an analyst in the northern port town Tripoli, believes Aoun may pick up as much as 50 percent of the vote.

The electorate has been polarized by Aoun’s huge Christian win in the Mt. Lebanon region, said Haddad. He thinks many Christians will now vote for him, while many Sunnis will rally behind their leader Saad Hariri.

The Christians may be worried by reports on Hariri’s own Future TV station that he had approached the fundamentalist Sunn Jamaa Islamiya for support. The Islamists, who are boycotting the elections, turned down the request.

The increased competitiveness has led to mutual recriminations between Aoun and the opposition. While Saad Hariri has congratulated Aoun and said he hoped to work with him in the future, his movement has accused the general’s allies in the north of communicating with Syrian intelligence agents.

Future TV said that the two leading pro-Syrian politicians, Sulayman Franjieh and former prime minister Omar Karame, had met Syrian agents in the north.

There is much talk in the opposition of continued Syrian interference in the country, particularly in the elections in the north. The continued activity of Syrian agents or their proxies flared up at the beginning of this month after prominent anti-Syrian journalist Samir Kassir was killed by a bomb in the center of Beirut.

Walid Jumblatt accused the Syrians of maintaining a "hit list" of opposition members. The accusation was picked up by the Bush administration, but Syria strenuously denies it.

Opposition MP Mosbah Ahdab, sitting in his modest apartment in his Tripoli constituency, said he had recently started worrying about his personal security. "I never did, but after what happened to Kassir, it is only natural to wonder what they may do."

He said he had received reports that the Syrians were exerting huge pressure on their former collaborators in the north to boost the chances of pro-Syrian candidates.

"They are talking to their people here, who used to work for them and they say that they shouldn’t think that just because they are gone they cannot get to them," said Ahdab. He said that Aoun’s alliances and Syria’s pressure made the outcome in the north uncertain.

Even if Aoun does not succeed in blocking the opposition from getting a majority in the next parliament, he would wield huge power. The opposition has said it would seek to remove pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud.

The president, elected by Parliament, wields huge power over the army and the security services, and the opposition considers his removal necessary to end Syrian influence over Lebanon.

The presidential crisis in Lebanon started last year when Damascus forced the Lebanese parliament to amend the constitution to allow Lahoud to stay in power for another three years beyond the end of his term.

The UN Security Council adopted resolution 1559 in response, demanding an end to outside interference in the country. Then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri resigned several months later in protest at the Syrian dictate. He was assassinated Feb. 14 this year.

The opposition needs a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament to remove Lahoud. Aoun has hinted that he would allow the president to serve out his term.

But the general this week said that he may seek the presidency himself. Under Lebanon’s sectarian-based constitution, the president is always a Christian.

Read more by Ferry Biedermann