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Lebanon election may determine future of US support

Campaigning  for Lebanon’s parliamentary elections has ended as voters prepare to go to the polls on Sunday. The electorate is deeply divided between two main political coalitions, and the fault lines between them were on display this week on Sassine Square in largely Christian east Beirut.

On one side of the square stood the supporters of MP and former general Michel Aoun. His mostly Christian party is allied with the Iranian-backed Shiite Islamist group Hezbollah, whose reason d'etre is resistance to Israel. The two parties make up the biggest blocs in Lebanon’s so-called “March 8” opposition.

On the other side of the street stood partisans of the March 14 coalition: the American and Saudi Arabian supported group of parties who say they are not interested in Hezbollah's war with Israel. They want Lebanon be to more like "moderate" Arab states, and U.S. allies, like Jordan and Egypt, and advertise their ability to attract foreign investment and tourists to Lebanon.

Both sides filled the square with cars festooned with campaign posters, while pedestrians waved their respective party’s flag. Lebanese soldiers toting automatic rifles positioned themselves on the concrete median in the middle of the square, separating the two sides.

It’s in Christian areas like Ashrafeeyah, where Sassine Square is located, that Lebanon’s election will be decided. Due to the country’s complicated power-sharing system, most of the seats in parliament have already been decided, except about 28. Those 28 seats are here and in the mountains above Beirut, where the election has split the electorate, and families, down the middle.

“The people who are running with general Aoun have been giving, since 2005, cover for
Hezbollah's policy [in Lebanon] and we are against the Hezbollah policy," said Elias Moukheiber, a candidate with March 14. "The problem with Hezbollah is that they are implementing an Iranian agenda in Lebanon.”

Elias said the biggest issue in the election is Hezbollah’s militia and the group’s stockpile of weapons.  He would like to see Hezbollah give its weapons to the Lebanese army, so it can’t start another war with Israel, like in 2006.

Elias’ campaign seeks to unseat his first cousin and current parliament member Ghassan Moukheiber, who is with Aoun and the opposition. Ghassan said Hezbollah should keep its weapons until the weak Lebanese army can be built up to defend Lebanon against Israel. But he said Hezbollah is not the election’s central issue.  Ghassan  said “when” his coalition wins, they will focus on fighting Lebanon’s endemic corruption and reforming Lebanon’s legal system.

“I believe that our group in the post-election period will stand for completing the architecture of the constitution and the Lebanese legal system, to make it more democratic, more participatory, and more respective of freedoms," he said.  "And definitely an effective Lebanese constitutional system will prevent the interference of foreign powers, whether Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or any others.”

Between the Moukheiber family’s two sides, and the two political coalitions, voters are nearly evenly divided. Analysts say the election could be determined by as little as 7 percent of the electorate in the districts that are up for grabs. So both the March 8 opposition and March 14 are trying to buy up votes.

One Lebanese voter from a tightly contested district north of Beirut told Global Post she was offered $1,000 by a candidate to switch her vote, as were five other members of her family.

“I had a call from [a candidate] saying that he is willing to visit my family to change our beliefs, and he said he will pay," said the voter, who asked that her name not be published.  "Actually, we need the money but we don’t sell our honesty and integrity."

There are other ways of buying votes. Lebanese can only vote in Lebanon, so expatriates from Dubai to London have been offered free flights home by both sides of the political divide.   Lebanon's National News Agency reported nearly 20,000 expatriate Lebanese arrived at Beirut’s international airport on Wednesday and Thursday. Paul Salem at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut said the vote buying may have a big impact on the election.

“In some of the districts it could be decisive," he said. "Flying in an extra plane load could give you that 50 or 100 votes that you needed.  It’s neck and neck in some districts, and they’re pulling out all the stops, and wherever they can make a slight difference they’re going to try.”

The Lebanese parliament passed a new electoral law last year to try to combat this kind of corruption.  But the majority of MP’s from both political coalitions voted against some of the most important provisions, including the U.S. backed March 14th. Some in the opposition even accuse the U.S. government of blackmail. U.S. officials warn that if the Hezbollah coalition wins, American economic support, which totaled more than half a billion dollars in the last four years, could end. 

“I believe such a declaration is not helpful in Lebanon, and [it’s] trying to influence the elections," said Ali Hamdan, spokesman for the Amal Movement, a party allied with Hezbollah and Aoun in the March 8 opposition.

Former Bush administration officials say a Hezbollah victory would constitute a “major U.S. defeat.” They posit Lebanon’s elections as one battle in the cold war between Washington and Tehran. Paul Salem of the Carnegie Center said if the Hezbollah coalition wins, and March 14 refuses to take part in the government, Lebanon could face international isolation and be treated much like Tehran and Damascus are now.

"There would be no breaks, no accommodation there," he said. "I think both from the U.S. and [oil rich Arab Gulf  states], they couldn’t but dramatically reduce their support, their enthusiasm to such a government.”

But Salem notes that in the end, the Lebanese government may not look that different after the election. The winning coalition may only hold a majority of about three to five seats in the 128-member parliament. As long as both sides are willing to compromise, Lebanon's relatively peaceful, if dysfunctional, status quo should remain. The results of the Iranian presidential election next week could also have considerable influence on Lebanon’s political future.