Lebanon's ruling coalition wins unexpected victory

BEIRUT — America’s allies in Lebanon have defied predictions in elections that reaffirmed the coalition's popularity after four tumultuous years in power.

The March 14 coalition — an assortment of Sunni Muslim, Christian and Druze parties that staged demonstrations in 2005 to eject Syria from Lebanon after a nearly 30-year presence — won a majority in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, securing 71 of a possible 128 seats.

The election results mean a defeat for the March 8 coalition that includes the Iranian-backed Islamist group, Hezbollah, and Christian leader Michel Aoun.

March 14 leader and current parliamentary majority head Saad Hariri struck a conciliatory note Monday morning as he spoke to supporters.

“These elections have no winner or loser because the only winner is democracy, and the biggest winner is Lebanon,” Hariri said.

As results flowed in from Lebanon’s 26 electoral districts through the night and early into the morning, March 14 supporters in Beirut and around Lebanon set off fireworks and drove in convoys honking horns and waving flags to celebrate their victory.

Monday’s results reaffirm the commitment of Lebanon’s electorate to March 14’s current parliamentary majority, despite having seen Lebanon suffer through a war between Hezbollah and Israel and a confrontation with Hezbollah that forced the ruling coalition to cede veto power in the cabinet to March 8.

Many voters around the country considered the vote to be a referendum on Hezbollah’s militia and the group’s relationship to Iran and Syria. Hezbollah has long maintained it needs its military wing and weapons to defend against Israeli attacks. The March 14 alliance says those weapons cause and invite more attacks than what they defend against.

Most Shiite voters support Hezbollah and its allies, and in the 2005 parliamentary elections Christians were largely split between March 14 and Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah. This year, with the rest of the electorate already firmly committed to one coalition or the other, Christians became the swing vote, and the seats in their areas were up for grabs.

The result showed most Christians weren’t convinced by Hezbollah’s argument as to why it needed its weapons or its reasons for taking over west Beirut last year. Those opinions swung the vote away from Aoun.

“If the 8th of March wins, there will be a siege on Lebanon like what happened in Gaza, because Hezbollah is a terrorist group, and Iran is a terrorist country,” said voter Rabieh Shakeeya after voting in yesterday’s polls in the tightly contested district of Zahle, which March 14 won. “[March 8] is working for Syria and Iran,” Shakeeya said.

Members of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement party accused March 14 of using fear to turn voters against their movement’s focus on anti-corruption and reform platform.

"Unfortunately, I tried to explain to people that everyone won't be wearing the chador and that we won't have an Islamist republic [but they didn't listen]," said FPM candidate and Minister of
Telecommunication Gebran Bassil, who lost an electoral race to the March 14 candidate in a key Christian district.

Other March 8 voters, especially die-hard supporters of Hezbollah, were quite sure why they were voting in the election.

“We vote for the persons who freed our country, and are trying to free the remaining part,” said Hussein Abbas, 21, from Beirut, after he cast his vote, referring to the Lebanese claim that two areas currently under Israeli occupation in the Golan Heights are actually in Lebanese territory.

“I support the weapons to remain with the resistance to fight Israel,” Abbas continued. “When we can be sure the Israelis won’t attack to Lebanon, we will give up our weapons or talk about our weapons.”

Now that the elections are over, the horse-trading will begin. March 14 and March 8 will have to negotiate for the selection of a new prime minster and his cabinet. The biggest question is whether the victorious March 14 will allow Hezbollah’s coalition to retain veto power in the cabinet, which Hezbollah demanded, and received, after taking over the largely March 14 districts of Beirut in bloody clashes last May.

The clashes broke out after March 14’s government approved a decision to dismantle Hezbollah’s communication network, which the party said was necessary for its defense of Lebanese land against Israel. Hezbollah this morning warned March 14 to not consider its new mandate as a license to push Hezbollah again.

"The majority must commit not to question our role as a resistance party, the legitimacy of our weapons arsenal and the fact that Israel is an enemy state," Hezbollah Member of Parliament Mohammad Raad told Agence France-Presse.

"The results indicate that the crisis will continue, unless the majority changes its attitude,” Raad said.

March 14 members were quiet about giving March 8 veto power, and its attitude toward Hezbollah’s weapons, at midday Monday. March 14 Druze leader Walid Jumblatt told Reuters he would support giving Hezbollah seats in the cabinet, but not veto power.

March 14 parliamentary member Sethrida Geagea of the Lebanese Forces party said the coalition needed time to figure out how to deal with what seemed like an unexpected victory.

“It’s something we should discuss with our partners in the March 14 coalition,” she said. “It hasn’t been discussed yet. When it will be discussed, it will be revealed publicly.”

“We should at least take 24 hours after what happened yesterday,” she added, sounding as surprised as any other Lebanese at the scope of her coalition's victory.

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