Lebanon’s Election: An International Affair

It was touted as an historic election, a vote to determine the future direction of Lebanon. But even with the winners declared, analysts say the Jun. 7 ballot was far from decisive, and did little to alter the fundamental balance of power in the country.

In the U.S., Lebanon’s poll has been characterized as another contest in the battle for hearts and minds in the Middle East, and a victory for a new Washington administration over the hardliners in Tehran.

“It was the real deal: President Barack Obama defeated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran,” wrote New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. “Neither man was on the ballot, but there’s no question whose vision won here.”

Writing from Beirut, the Carnegie Foundation’s Paul Salem described the result as a “quiet victory for moderation and pragmatism over extremism and confrontation.”

This year’s contest was also couched as a referendum on the political identity of the country. The opposition coalition, led by Hezbollah and supported by Iran and Syria, views its resistance against Israel and U.S. interests as a non-negotiable national duty.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Saudi-backed “pro-Western” alliance led by Saad Hariri, the son of slain Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, calls Hezbollah’s resistance posture, and its guns, a threat to the country’s security.

In the end, the March 14th alliance retained its majority in the parliament, winning 71 of 128 seats. The Hezbollah-led March 8th coalition – allied with Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement – did worse than pollsters had predicted, taking 57 seats.

Whether U.S. President Obama’s conciliatory outreach in Cairo last week influenced the election is a matter of debate in Washington, but some analysts say his softer approach may be adding to the mood of political reconciliation throughout the region.

“We all see that the Syrians are actually talking again to the Saudis, there’s some sort of rapprochement,” said Bilal Saab, an analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “The Syrians are also talking to the Egyptians; this all reflects very positively on Lebanon.”

A March 14th win may also have a positive effect on Obama’s plans for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“A Hezbollah win would have strengthened the case made by the right-wing Israeli Likud Party that Iran and its proxies are a higher priority for Israel’s foreign policy than trying to restart the peace process with the Palestinians,” wrote Middle East historian Juan Cole, on the Salon.com website.

While the alliance supported by Damascus was defeated, it has also likely increased the possibility of improved U.S.-Syria relations. Washington’s special representative to the Middle East, George Mitchell, is due in Damascus this week.

“That will raise the probability of the U.S. returning an Ambassador to Damascus in the near future,” wrote Syria expert Josh Landis, on his widely-read blog, Syriacomment.com. “The Lebanon hurdle has been crossed with Washington’s satisfaction.”

Despite the cheers from the international community, election monitors paint a far more complex picture of Lebanon’s post-election phase. In the country’s sectarian political landscape, there is rarely a clear winner with a mandate to rule, only a coalition government that operates by consensus.

While March 14th won more seats in the parliament, Graeme Bannerman, who monitored this year’s election for the National Democratic Institute, said the March 8th coalition won the popular vote handily. “You have a majority of people in Lebanon not having voted for this government,” he said.

For Hariri, that means trying to balance the demands of his own constituency with the concerns of Hezbollah and its allies, which represent more than half of the country’s voters.

The most pressing issue in that debate is over the future of Hezbollah’s guns.

“The balance of power in Lebanon (as in the entire Arab world) is not really anchored in Parliament, but in power relations negotiated elsewhere,” wrote Beirut Daily Star editor at large Rami Khouri.

“The most important political contest in Lebanon happened in May 2008, not June 2009.”

May 2008 was the month that Hezbollah extracted veto power through the barrel of the gun, after the country’s year-long political paralysis degenerated into street battles between the two opposing blocs.

In order to quell Lebanon’s worst internal fighting since its decades’ long civil war, all factions met in Doha, Qatar, to form a unity government.

The deal gave the opposition 11 out of 30 seats in Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government. Under existing rules, a minority of one-third plus one can block any decision.

But analysts are questioning whether a coalition government can be formed, and how Hariri, who is likely to become Lebanon’s next prime minister, will deal with Hezbollah on the issue of arms.

“You have the international community – us included – and the media saying ‘great victory for the anti-Iranians and for the moderate Arabs and for the West, but that isn’t what happened here,” said Graham Bannerman, with the National Democratic Institute, who oversaw election monitoring in the south of the country.

“That’s troublesome for Hariri because he has his international backers who believe one thing, and he has pressure in his own country, from his own party who doesn’t want him to compromise,” said Bannerman. “He has this large bloc of people led by Hezbollah who says you have to compromise.”

Are the Doha Accords a temporary settlement or something to follow into the next cabinet? Most analysts believe abandoning the agreement could lead back to the paralysis of the past. A compromise would address the issue of Hezbollah arms and will likely depend on the possibility of improved Syrian-Saudi relations.

In the end, it may be similar to the deal struck by the older Hariri before his death.

“You don’t have to call it veto powers, just give Hezbollah assurances, like Rafiq Hariri did in the past,” said Saab.

But that may be easier said than done.

(Inter Press Service)