Lebanon's political season kicks off

BEIRUT — Banners and billboards have begun to spring up around Lebanon bearing avatars of smiling or scolding politicians jockeying for parliamentary seats in the upcoming June 7 parliamentary elections.

At election rallies, political leaders, called “Zaeem” in Arabic, smile and wave and make pronouncements, but in the end, there’s really only one issue.

“We uphold our position saying that no Lebanese or non-Lebanese arms should rise above the arms of the state and its security and military institutions,” said Saad al-Hariri, the current parliamentary majority leader, at his Future Movement’s political rally in early April.

Hariri was talking about Hezbollah, and the group’s insistence that it needs weapons to defend Lebanon against Israel. Hariri’s position is that Hezbollah’s weapons are dangerous to the country, and the Lebanese Army should be the only armed force in Lebanon.

A few days earlier, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah held a similar rally, telling his supporters to get out the vote in order to take the majority of parliamentary seats from Hariri’s ruling coalition.

“Our goal in the upcoming parliamentary elections is to achieve the victory of the opposition,” Nasrallah declared in a live video feed to his supporters. “We will be paving the way for a certain political life. Either we bring new political life, or extend the old life,” he said.

Hariri’s block holds power by a slim majority. With around 700 candidates running for Lebanon’s 128 Parliamentary seats, the stakes are high.

The elections will poll a polarized electorate split by ideology, religion and political affiliation. The winning coalition will deeply influence Lebanon’s orientation on a variety of issues for the next four years.

The issues include Hezbollah’s weapons and the Lebanese government’s support for the group’s militant stance against Israel, and the nature of Lebanese relations with the U.S. and Europe on the one hand, and Iran and Syria on the other.

There are few independent candidates with any chance of winning in the election. Nearly all of them are members of one of two camps.

One camp is the Syrian and Iranian affiliated March 8 coalition, led by the Shiite group Hezbollah and former General Michele Aoun, a Christian. March 8 currently holds the minority of seats in the parliament, making it the opposition. It is composed of most of Lebanon’s Shiite population, and roughly half of the country’s Christians.

“March 8 wants a society and state of resistance, a steadfast bastion against western imperialist, American and Zionist designs to have a chokehold on the region,” said Oussama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

 

On the opposing side is March 14, led by parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim. March 14 enjoys the political support of Lebanon’s Sunnis, Druze and the other half of the country’s Christians. The coalition came to power in Lebanon’s last round of parliamentary elections in 2005, after the assassination of Hariri’s father, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

“March 14 wants a country with an open market, a liberal economy, where they’d really be able to bring back Lebanon as the jewel of the Middle East, as a tourist destination, with an open banking sector, that’s friendly to the west. A non-aligned country,” Safa said. “That is the fundamental clash with the conservative quasi-religious paramilitary view of Lebanon being a resistance citadel.”

The two coalitions are representative of the wide ideological polarization in the Middle East. But they only came into their present-day form after the assassination of Hariri in 2005. Many blamed the assassination on Hezbollah’s ally, Syria, who had maintained troops in Lebanon and de-facto control of its tiny neighbor since 1990.

Syria denied any involvement. But international and domestic outrage at the assassination forced Syria to withdraw its troops. The March 14 coalition, named for a massive rally calling for Syria to leave Lebanon, rode the coattails of the anger, and swept to power with U.S. and European support.

Hezbollah and other parties had staged their own demonstration in support of Syria a few days before the March 14 rally, on March 8, 2005. When Hariri’s coalition won the elections, Hezbollah took part in the government. But the two years that followed Lebanon’s new-found independence were punctuated by war, bombings, political assassinations and instability that led the country to the brink of another civil war.

The 33-day 2006 war, fought largely between Hezbollah and Israel, caused some $3 billion in damage. Many in March 14 accused Hezbollah of starting the war at Syria and Iran’s behest.

When then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited March 14 politicians in the middle of the war, Hezbollah accused the governing majority of being Israeli and American spies. March 14 accused March 8 of being Iranian and Syrian stooges.

Not long after the war ended, the March 8 coalition’s ministers resigned from the cabinet. They demanded they be given veto power over the March 14-controlled cabinet to protect Hezbollah’s military activities against what the group said was an American and Israeli plan to disarm it. March 14 refused to budge. For 18 months the parliament didn’t meet, delaying a parliamentary vote to elect a president.

 

Hezbollah and its allies eventually triumphed. In May, 2008, clashes broke out in Beirut, and within a few days the opposition’s fighters had routed those of March 14.

In a Qatari-brokered peace deal, the opposition got their veto power in the government, and a new president was elected. A new electoral law was agreed upon by the opposing sides.

Under Lebanon’s complicated sectarian-based power sharing system, Lebanon’s 128 parliamentary seats are equally split between Christians and Muslims. The 64 seats for each sect are then further subdivided into 11 religious branches, four within Islam and seven within Christianity.

The new electoral law redrew the country’s electoral districts, so most of the 26 districts are now dominated by one religious group or another. In Lebanon’s winner-take-all electoral system, and because political parties are largely based on religion, the new law means all but a handful of races in Lebanon’s 26 electoral districts are predictable. The dominant party’s candidate will win.

Analysts say the real competitions for seats will almost all occur in Christian-dominated districts, as the Christians are the only sect that is not unified and dominated by a single political party. Currently, the Christians are split between the two camps.

“The Christian seats in the current parliament are almost equally divided between March 14 and March 8,” says Richard Chambers, Director at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Lebanon.

Analysts say that around 30 of the 64 parliamentary seats reserved for Christians may be up for grabs. Whoever wins the majority of Christian seats will be well on the way to securing a majority in parliament.

The election will be close. Ousama Safa at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies says either coalition is likely to win a parliamentary majority by only four to five seats. That means it’s not substantial enough to make any constitutional changes. But a victory for March 8 could pose serious questions for Lebanon’s role in Middle East politics, and its relationship to the U.S.

The U.S. has given over a billion dollars in military and humanitarian aid and financial assistance to Lebanon since 2006, according to the U.S. Embassy here. U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Michel Sison questioned whether the aid would continue if Hezbollah and their allies were to win a majority in parliament.

“We anticipate that the shape of the U.S. relationship, the shape of the U.S. assistance program, will be evaluated in the context of the new government's policies and statements,” Sison said in an interview with the Lebanese website Naharnet on April 2.

But March 8 appears to want to avoid a situation where their victory would isolate Lebanon internationally, cutting off valuable aid and support. Nasrallah has opened the door to a “unity government,” where the March 14 forces would have a veto power in a March 8 controlled cabinet. Hariri has so far rejected the proposal.

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