Lebanese Polls Closely Watched by US and Region

WASHINGTON, Jun 5 (IPS) — After emerging from a political crisis last year, the Lebanese people will head to the polls Jun. 7 to determine the composition of the new parliament. A variety of foreign powers, including the U.S., will be watching closely, waiting for the electoral results before they determine their policies towards the new government.

The outcome is especially important because many analysts view the elections through the lens of the struggle between U.S. and Iranian regional hegemonic aspirations.

No one is sure whether Saad al-Hariri’s Western-backed March 14 alliance will retain its parliamentary majority, or whether the balance of power will shift to the Iranian-backed March 8 movement, led by the Shi’a militant group Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement of Maronite Christian Michael Aoun.

An agreement after Hezbollah took the Sunni Arab neighborhoods of Beirut by force a year ago strengthened Hezbollah’s opposition, granting their coalition veto power over actions of the government. Now the group is looking to expand its power and perhaps take the helm of government.

The U.S. has designated Hezbollah, an armed Shia group that also serves as a social organization and political party for much of Lebanon’s Shia population, a terrorist group

Asked by National Public Radio on Monday whether the U.S. would recognize electoral gains by Hezbollah, U.S. President Barack Obama stumbled through an answer which indicated that he was waiting to see what happened in the election.

"Well, look, if at some point — Lebanon is a member of the United Nations — if at some point they are elected as a head of state, or a head of state is elected in Lebanon that is a member of that organization, then that would raise these issues. That hasn’t happened yet," he said.

While the U.S. currently supports Lebanon under a government in which Hezbollah is in opposition, a government there led by the group and its allies might draw concern in Washington, where support for Hezbollah’s adversary Israel and antipathy towards the group’s patron, Iran, run deep.

The elections, however unpredictable, do retain the typical character of Lebanese politics: several regional and international players have a stake in the process.

The list of countries deeply interested in the elections goes beyond the usual Mideast regional players — Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — and into the realm of international powers such as the U.S., France and Russia.

The Obama administration deemed the Lebanese election important enough to dispatch Vice President Joe Biden to Beirut last week — the first time in 25 years that a sitting U.S. president or vice president has visited Lebanon.

Biden said that he hadn’t come to back any specific Lebanese party, but he later remarked that the U.S. "will evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the composition of the new government."

"When there is an American embrace, it almost always backfires, particularly in the Middle East," said the National Democratic Institute’s (NDI) Les Campbell, at a panel hosted by the Washington-based Aspen Institute.

At the same panel, Middle East analyst and al-Hayat correspondent Raghida Dergham referenced the involvement of outside players in Lebanon, calling the country a laboratory where regional power struggles are carried out between countries like Iran, Syria and Israel.

In addition to the struggle between external powers, Dergham said the stakes were even higher for Lebanon itself.

"If Hezbollah wins, the fabric of society may change. The meaning of ‘the state’ may change," she said, though she insisted she wasn’t predicting a Hezbollah victory. She said she feared another violent conflict with Israel, which fought a 34-day war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006.

"I’m afraid the Netanyahu government wants to shield themselves from a peace process, and Lebanon might be the platform to do that if Hezbollah wins," she said.

The U.S. has not telegraphed how it would react to a Hezbollah win, but experts have made some predictions.

"If Hezbollah and its allies win a majority and they lead the next government, at that point we will see the Obama administration pull back in the level of what aid it provides militarily," said Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) fellow Mohammad Bazzi during a press call. "We may see a continuation in training, but there will be a pullback in arms [aid]."

Indeed, when another Islamic "resistance" group, Hamas, won Palestinian Authority (PA) elections, it was largely frozen out by the West, including the U.S., which withdrew or diverted some 400 million dollars of aid to the PA.

The U.S. has been supporting the Lebanese military, which is widely viewed as a unifying national institution, with the intention of bolstering it. The army, however, has neither the mandate nor the ability to carry U.N. resolution 1771, which calls for the disarmament of all Lebanese militias.

It is unlikely Hezbollah will opt to form a government on its own. Rather, to make the new government more palatable — both within Lebanon and abroad — a coalition with elements of the March 14th movement is likely.

Despite Hariri’s publicly saying he will not join a government led by the March 8th coalition — Hezbollah and its allies — NDI’s Campbell believes that, regardless of which side emerges from the election with more seats, "there will likely be a unity government."

Campbell sees claims to the contrary by March 14th leaders as an effort to impress the importance of turnout upon their constituents.

Hezbollah’s coalition already includes Aoun, who, despite aligning himself with Hezbollah, has some sharply divergent political goals. Such allies, whose support would be needed for a March 8th victory, would likely moderate Hezbollah’s agenda.

Pointing to a likely national unity government, the close U.S. relationship with Lebanese president and former army general Michel Suleiman, and the fact that leading the government would make Hezbollah accountable to the public, Financial Times columnist Roula Khalaf argued that the U.S. should support whomever emerges from the elections.

"[A]t a time when President Barack Obama is on a mission to improve America’s battered image in the Muslim world… it would be a mistake to punish voters for making what the U.S. considered to be the wrong choice," Khalaf wrote.

"At a time when the U.S. is trying to engage Syria and Iran," Khalaf continued, "it can surely find justification for respecting the choice of Lebanese voters, even if it finds the outcome of the elections disagreeable."

Indeed, the U.S. special envoy for Mideast peace, former Senator George Mitchell, will visit the region next week. Though the State Department would not confirm his itinerary, there is speculation that Mitchell’s trip will include his first visit to Syria as special envoy.

In her blog at Foreign Policy, Laura Rozen revealed that Mitchell will make a stop in Lebanon in the period immediately following the election.

Last month, the German newspaper Der Spiegel wrote a bombshell article which asserted that leaks from an investigation into the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri — Saad’s father — reveal that Hezbollah was involved.

Some commentators, including politicians from both sides of the Lebanese political spectrum, have debated the veracity of the Der Spiegel article — some noting its timing just before the elections.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Ali Gharib and Jared Levy

Ali Gharib and Jared Levy write for Inter Press Service.