Lebanon’s Aoun Makes Dramatic Comeback

BEIRUT – Former exiled general Michel Aoun made a dramatic comeback in the penultimate round of Lebanon’s legislative elections, sweeping 21 seats out of the 58 contested.

The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader’s unexpected victory represents a major upset to Lebanon’s political landscape, setting back the anti-Syrian opposition bloc in its drive to win a majority of seats in parliament and establishing Aoun as the country’s main political Christian leader. It has also put Lebanon’s Christian minority back on the country’s multi-confessional political map.

Aoun’s massive victory in the Mount Lebanon and the Bekaa polls took even the renegade general by surprise. His chances of making a much-awaited return to the political stage appeared to have grown slimmer by the day since his 14-year exile in France came to an end five weeks ago.

Isolated by his former anti-Syrian opposition allies and put at a disadvantage by the controversial electoral law adopted, Aoun adopted the strategy of boycotting the Beirut elections, which he had no chance of winning, and entering electoral alliances with pro-Syrian politicians in the Christian heartland of the country.

The strategy paid off. In the most heated round of the four-stage election, Aoun’s face-off with the alliance led by Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt and Sunni leader Saad Hariri, son of slain former premier Rafik Hariri, mobilized the highest voter turnout yet in the polls.

An estimated 52 percent of the districts’ voters came out, giving Aoun and his allies 21 seats (the general himself won a seat in the Kesrouan district) and Jumblatt’s list 27 – far short of the number of seats hoped for.

"At least this round of elections brought the Christians out of political isolation," notes Michael Young, opinion editor of the Daily Star. "But it was a reaction vote. For the past few months, the Christian community has gotten very angry. They were angry at the electoral law imposed on them, which the opposition failed to prevent. And they were angry at the Muslim opposition – the way Jumblatt and Hariri appeared to be just allocating them the odd seat here and there."

Sidelined from the mainstream political process since the end of the civil war, the mass Christian vote in favor of Aoun represents not only a significant return of the Christian faction to the political fold, but also the clear nomination of a leader to head a community that has to date been divided into a multitude of bickering factions.

"The Shi’ites have clear leaders – Hassan Nasrallah [head of Hezbollah] and Nabih Berri [head of Amal], the Druze have Walid Jumblatt, the Sunnis have Saad Hariri, the Christians felt the need to elect a strong leader which could stand his ground against these," says longtime political activist and Notre Dame University professor Khattar Torbey.

"Furthermore, Aoun has credibility, derived from the fact that he was abroad for the past 14 years and has not been tainted by corruption and collaboration with Syria. The anti-Syrian opposition turned against Damascus after Hariri’s assassination, but prior to that they were working with them. Their actions played into the hands of Aoun, who has been consistently against the Syrian domination of Lebanon throughout his career."

The Syria foe’s volte-face upon his return to politics by entering into alliances with pro-Syrian political candidates such as Michael Murr in the Mount Lebanon district brought Aoun a slew of criticism, led first and foremost by arch-rival Jumblatt. Accusing the general of being a "Syrian land mine," the Druze leader lamented the defeat of moderate Christian politicians such as Nassib Lahoud.

Others accused the general of dealing a death blow to the opposition.

Yet such criticism has been swiftly rejected by Aoun’s camp, which stresses that it is willing to collaborate with whomever in parliament shares its political goals and that it has not altered its stance on Syrian meddling in Lebanon. "No matter what they say, Aoun is still the opposition," says Young.

Staunchly secular, Aoun’s call for a fight against corruption, an audit of the country’s finances (whose crushing debts amount to $35 billion), and an amendment of the electoral law has struck a chord with many.

"Had the people not found a new direction [in our political platform], they would note have voted for us," he announced defiantly following his victory.

Aoun, 69, now has his eyes set on the final round of elections due to take place in north Lebanon on Sunday. Bolstered by an alliance with pro-Syrian MP Suleiman Franjieh’s list and the backing of former premier Omar Karami, he constitutes a significant challenge to the united opposition list of Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, Christian opposition Qornet Shehwan Gathering, and the Lebanese Forces.

The opposition now needs to win 19 of the 28 seats up for grabs in the final round to gain a slim majority in parliament. But regardless of the outcome of the vote, Aoun has established himself as a force to be reckoned with, whose presence in parliament could well thwart the opposition’s postelection ambitions.

"Any chance of ousting [pro-Syrian President Emile] Lahoud after the elections have been quashed, as have any chances of Saad Hariri becoming prime minister and Nabih Berri returning to the speaker of parliament post," Young predicts.

By emerging as the most powerful Christian leader in Lebanon, Aoun has further put the opposition in an awkward position. Should they choose to oust Lahoud, Aoun now stands as the most representative candidate for the job, most notably following the ejection of presidential hopefuls such as Nassib Lahoud from the political stage.