Lebanese head to the polls

BEIRUT — Hezbollah already won what they called a “Divine Victory” in the war with Israel in 2006; by comparison their success at the polls in the 2009 elections seems like a sideshow — and a foregone conclusion.

The Lebanese vote on Sunday in some of the most loudly contested elections in the Arab world. Problem is, the governing alliance already lost power a long time ago in everything but name. The government is running scared, while Hezbollah and its allies have steadily expanded their share of real power for the last three years. Almost no conceivable outcome of this election will change that inexorable reality, which on the surface at least looks sad for Lebanon’s liberals and exciting for the group of parties that brands itself “the Axis of Resistance.”

The governing coalition looks like a moderate and tolerant bunch, secular, pluralistic, willing to live and let live, and to do business with the United States. They have staked this election as a black-and-white referendum on the future: return the government to power and propel Lebanon out of the grip of extremism — or vote for Hezbollah, and drive the little country that could into the embrace of Iran’s ayatollahs.

“Hassan Nasrallah wants to make this an Islamic state! They consider us Christians visitors in our own country! They will carry this country into an abyss!” one of the pro-Western candidates screamed at a rally this week. Nayla Tueni is an attractive young scion of an intellectual dissident dynasty, but her nearly hysterical pitch to the voters in the Christian part of Beirut amounted to bald fear-mongering: Vote for us, or else this place will look like Tehran.

Hezbollah might be a lot of things, but they’re not anti-Christian; their biggest political ally is former general Michel Aoun’s Christian party, and in the current government they’ve given his movement more cabinet positions than they kept for themselves.

Just a few seats in the parliament are up for grabs, and by most estimates the balance of power will shift only by a few seats. A “decisive” victory for Hezbollah’s coalition means they will win a slim majority in parliament; if the governing parties win, the best they’ll be able to do is maintain a status quo in which they share power with Hezbollah’s coalition and must avoid advancing any bold or controversial policies.

The governing majority (a loose alliance that calls itself March 14) has allied itself with Washington and Riyadh, and has promised to resist Syrian domination. But it has done little to improve Lebanon’s moribund economy and calcified political system. Most of its major leaders are warlords with epic reputations for graft and corruption. They have little left to galvanize their followers but fear — in particular, fear that Lebanon’s dwindling Christian population will wither to nearly nothing.

March 14 television ads show gunmen storming well-appointed flats during dinner, and fireballs hurtling into placid homes. The warning: Hezbollah’s allies will ruin your lives and bring on everlasting war.

Throngs of Christian voters pump their fists at the rallies, swearing to stand against an Islamic onslaught. When asked what they think will happen, though, grim reason prevails. “I’m afraid we will lose these elections, and even more of us Christians will leave Lebanon,” said Salim Halabi, 44, hoisting his daughter on his shoulders to watch Tueni speak.

Across town at a Hezbollah event, slightly calmer tempers prevail. The Party of God already acts like the sheriff in town, in part because it managed to bring the current ruling majority to its knees after a nearly two-year showdown, forcing its choice of president and winning veto power over all decisions in a 2008 cabinet reshuffle after Hezbollah-backed gunmen briefly took over West Beirut (Shi’ite gunmen carefully avoided Christian neighborhoods).

A few days before the election, Hezbollah is co-hosting a celebration with the Iranian embassy of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic revolutionary who overthrew the Shah and helped found Hezbollah. But the Shi’ite Islamists have taken care to invite onto a stage a Maronite Christian bishop and a Sunni imam, and to pay respects to the Lebanese president and prime minister, neither of whom is in Hezbollah’s camp.

Unapologetically, Hezbollah embraced its ties to Iran. “Hezbollah has taken everything it has from Iran, while Iran never asked for anything in return,” declared Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s number two. “Lebanon is defended only by the canon and the rockets and mighty hearts.”

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has already suggested that if the United States cuts off military aid to Lebanon, in the event of a Hezbollah election victory, Tehran would happily step in.

Hezbollah expects to call the shots in the next government as it has, effectively, in the current one. Right now Hezbollah has only one cabinet minister, while its allies control a third of the ministries — enough to block any major decision. But this seemingly modest power-sharing arrangement masks the real, raw power calculus. Hezbollah has the power to declare war on Israel without the government’s input, as it did in July 2006. Hezbollah can vanquish its domestic rivals by force in a matter of days, as it demonstrated with the Beirut takeover in May 2008. Hezbollah’s constituents are willing to die for their leaders.

Hezbollah most certainly is a totalitarian party with an Islamist agenda. Unfortunately, the liberal and secular parties are run in a similarly authoritarian style, often by corrupt family dynasties. Hezbollah might rule the Shiites with an overtly religious iron fist, but in dealings with other sects it’s as (reluctantly, perhaps) tolerant and pluralistic as the rest of Lebanon’s sectarian parties.

Meanwhile the government’s supporters might abhor Hezbollah, but the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” notwithstanding, they seem just as likely to take to the beach or cafe as to the streets.

Once Sunday’s votes are counted, it’s likely that long, painful months of political negotiations will follow, and that in the end — maybe sometime this fall or winter — a unity government will take office that looks strikingly like the current one.

The Paris of the Middle East won’t look any more like Tehran (or like Paris, for that matter) than it does today; it will remain dysfunctional, divided Beirut.

(Thanassis Cambanis is writing a book about Hezbollah that will be published by Free Press in 2010.) 

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