Sunday, May 03, 2009

Stumbling blocs - The National Newspaper
Stumbling blocs

* Last Updated: May 01. 2009 2:33PM UAE / May 1. 2009 10:33AM GMT

Supporters of the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party, members of the March 14 coalition, at a rally in the Beirut suburb of Ashrafieh. Joseph Barrak / AFP

As Lebanon’s closely contested elections approach, it is clear that the era of high-stakes, zero-sum politics is over, Elias Muhanna writes.

In five weeks, Lebanon will hold its much-anticipated parliamentary elections. Squaring off are two political coalitions that have spent the better part of four years at each others’ throats. In one corner stands March 14, a pro-American group of Sunni, Christian and Druze parties that emerged from the crucible of the “Cedar Revolution” following the assassination of the billionaire prime minister Rafik Hariri in early 2005. Opposing it is a curious yet durable alliance known informally as March 8, which unites Lebanon’s two main Shiite parties (Hizbollah and Amal) with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a predominantly Christian but officially secularist party led by General Michel Aoun.

The country’s highways have been festooned with campaign advertisements for months. On a recent drive from Byblos to Beirut, I counted 89 billboards for the FPM alone, an average of one every quarter mile. The parties have gone all out – taking the campaign beyond print and TV to Facebook and Twitter – to energise their constituents by casting these elections as “fateful” and “epoch-making”. Lebanon’s very identity is at stake, they argue: its orientation and strategic alignment in a polarised region.

Despite the hype, however, signs increasingly suggest that the actual outcome of the elections will be far less significant than the manoeuvring of the post-election period – when the cabinet will be assembled, a prime minister chosen and the veto powers of the opposition decided. The months after the election seem likely to bring the break-up of existing alliances, the creation of new ones and a redrawing of the Lebanese political map. This is a product both of changing regional dynamics as well as growing fractiousness among Lebanon’s political elite, who have begun to sacrifice coalition unity in favour of safeguarding their own parties’ parliamentary representation.

The campaign thus far has seen intense competition over seats between coalition allies, defections from one coalition to another, electoral horse-trading between political opponents, resignations, public spats, and an overall muddying of the once-pristine image of two monolithic parliamentary blocs that defined themselves as diametrically opposed in orientation and outlook. What seems certain is that the era of high-stakes, zero-sum politics in Lebanon is over – at least for the time being – having been replaced by the mundane triangulations of consociational compromise. Even as party leaders speak gravely of fateful elections and historic decisions facing the Lebanese electorate, the political furniture is being shuffled discreetly behind the scenes.

Between the years 2005 and 2008, Lebanon was the portrait of a society in transformation. The car bomb that killed Rafik Hariri on Valentine’s Day 2005 set in motion an astonishing saga that saw the expulsion of the Syrian Army from Lebanon, a war between Israel and Hizbollah, and a power vacuum at the highest levels of government. For three years, the lines of political affiliation were etched in stone. To cast a vote, carry a flag, or attend a demonstration was – for many Lebanese – to participate in a struggle for self-determination.

In May 2008, an agreement brokered in Doha put an end to 20 months of opposition protests, a downtown sit-in, and violent clashes between Hizbollah and pro-government forces. The terms included granting a cabinet veto to the opposition, hammering out a new electoral law, forming a transitional cabinet and electing Lebanese Army General Michel Suleiman as the new President of Lebanon.

The polarised rhetoric that has characterised the last four years has not really faded since Doha, but the Obama administration’s new Middle East policy has forced Lebanese parties to adjust expectations. March 14 leaders have quieted their attacks on Damascus as Bashar al Assad has been courted by American and European diplomats. Meanwhile, Syria’s peace negotiations with Israel seem to have prompted Hizbollah to display greater openness to the idea of integrating its weapons into a credible national defence. Processes of engagement and reconciliation within Arab ranks and between the United States and Iran have weakened the centripetal forces that helped produce two distinct political coalitions in Lebanon.

March 14 in particular has looked increasingly disorganised of late. While its leadership has gone to great lengths to project an image of unity and commitment to the principles of the Cedar Revolution, the cracks in the coalition are becoming ever more apparent. This was evidenced most recently by the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s diatribe against his Sunni and Christian allies, which was captured on a camera phone and leaked to the press. In it, he railed against the ineptitude of Saad Hariri’s Sunni fighters, and referred to Maronite Christians as a “bad breed”. Many have speculated that Jumblatt – a key member of March 14 who leads a bloc of 16 seats in parliament – will drop out of the coalition following the elections.

By contrast, March 8 has remained relatively unified and on-message, largely because its binding principle – opposition to the Siniora government – still obtains, whereas the anti-Syrian sentiment that united the March 14 coalition has weakened over time. And while the opposition has also witnessed internal squabbling over seats – between Michel Aoun and the Amal leader Nabih Berri – there have been no significant fissures. On the other hand, disagreements among the loyalists have already led to the resignation of one prominent March 14 figure (the Democratic Renewal Movement leader Nassib Lahoud), and are likely to result in the replacement of other outspoken standard bearers of the Cedar Revolution by members of established old-guard families with local followings.

Most polls predict a very close race, unlikely to give either coalition a convincing mandate. Because of the way in which electoral districts are drawn, the vast majority of seats (about 100 out of 128) will witness little competition. The remaining swing seats fall largely in Christian-majority districts; these electoral battles will determine which coalition reaches a 65-seat majority. Analysts are divided as to who has the upper hand, but there is a consensus that the margin of victory will be a narrow one.

What will a victory mean for the winning coalition? It depends, first of all, on which side wins. Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic secretary-general of Hizbollah, has called for the creation of a national unity government after June 7, vowing to grant March 14 a veto on all cabinet decisions should the opposition win the elections. March 14, for its part, has refused to reciprocate, and Saad Hariri has gone further to say that he will not participate in a cabinet led by March 8.

Some have suggested that Hariri’s stance is a ploy to energise his base by creating a do-or-die atmosphere surrounding the polls. Others speculate that Hizbollah will try to tempt Hariri to join a March 8 government by offering him the premiership, although most believe that it will be a different Sunni billionaire, Najib Miqati, who will be tapped, due to his excellent relations with both Damascus and Riyadh. On the other hand, if March 14 wins and refuses to give the opposition a veto, it is a virtual certainty that Hizbollah and Amal will boycott the cabinet, leading to the same kind of crisis that paralysed the government from November 2006 until the Doha Agreement.

The final factor that will influence the post-election order will be the response of the United States in the event of a March 8 victory. While the Europeans have said that they will work with either side, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has signalled that America would have to review its military aid commitments to Lebanon should Hizbollah emerge as a member of the parliamentary majority. This is precisely why the opposition has stressed its preference for a power-sharing arrangement, and also why Hizbollah has publicly stated that it will not attempt to increase the size of its own parliamentary share, placing the onus on its allies to push the opposition over the top. Indeed, for March 8 to win, the Change and Reform Bloc led by Aoun will have to take more seats than Hizbollah and Amal combined. Casting itself as a minority partner in a much larger coalition and calling for a national unity government are strategies designed to mitigate an aggressive American posture toward Lebanon if the opposition prevails.

These countermeasures, however, will severely constrain the governing abilities of the winning side. Power-sharing will help insulate Lebanon from civil unrest (if March 14 wins) or from a disruption in economic ties with the West (if March 8 wins), but it seems likely to provide yet another pretence for both coalitions to obstruct or avoid any far-reaching reform efforts. The systemic problems that cripple Lebanese politics – sectarianism, widespread corruption, massive public debt – are unlikely to be addressed without a strong executive mandate. The weakening of coalition ties may augur the end of an era defined by the rivalry between March 14 and March 8 – but merely reshuffling the existing sectarian alliances will do little more than prolong Lebanon’s paralysis.

Elias Muhanna writes the Lebanese affairs blog He is a PhD candidate in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Harvard University.

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