Lebanon: From the Election Campaign Trail

Campaigning for the Lebanese parliamentary elections in June is in full swing, and the Lebanese blogosphere is not skipping a beat.

Lebanon's two major political blocs, the Western-backed March 14 alliance and the Hezballah-led March 8 alliance, are heading for a tight contest.

The parliamentary elections are pivotal in Lebanon, determining the formation of government. The March 14 alliance currently holds majority in Parliament, and indeed the cabinet.

Hezballah and its allies are, however, intent on turning their status from opposition into the ruling majority.

A lot is at stake in the elections, the first since Lebanon's 2006 war with Israel, and after two years of political turmoil that nearly dragged the country into another civil war. Lebanon is also in the midst of an economic crisis, with the state debt soaring beyond USD 40 billion.

As expected, the Lebanese blogosphere is keeping a close eye on the developments in the elections and offering plenty of insight.

The election campaign has witnessed an explosion of political billboard ads, with Rami from +961 offering comments on the “billboard wars”:

On the road to any area in Lebanon you will notice dozens of billboards promoting the different parties or candidates running for the election.

And on my way to Sidon yesterday I saw the following ones.

One politician who has drawn interest from bloggers is Druze leader, and March 14 member, Walid Jumblatt. Bloggers are sensing another potential shift following a meeting with Druze rival, and Hezballah ally, Talal Arslan. Is Jumblatt about to flop again? Ex Oriente Lux? notes:

Roughly a year ago Jumblatt was the March 14 lightning rod who threatened Hezbollah’s weapons, now he drifts increasingly towards more centrist and conventional positions.

While most March 14 leaders are hardening ranks (or, the undetermined electoral lists notwithstanding, at least trying to), Jumblatt is keeping his options open.  This really doesn’t bode well for March 14 that Jumblatt feels the need to shift his position, though it is not surprising.

There also seems to be unease from [Michel] Aoun’s camp at the relationship between Jumblatt and [Nabih] Berri in particular.  Still, I think that this is more likely part of a broader strategy on the part of the Hezbollah dominated Opposition to weaken the ranks and resolve of March 14 in the weeks leading up to the elections.  For Jumblatt’s part he is merely trying to hedge his bets and observers ought to view him as a bellweather in the coming weeks.

Friday Lunch Club also took note of Jumblatt's softening stance towards Hezballah, quoting this from the media:

“…Speaking to Al-Jadeed TV, Jumblatt admitted that some in Hezbollah continue to doubt his intentions and stances. However, he urged them to distinguish between his previous and current positions and speeches. “I say one must distinguish between my speeches under the influence of blood with what I am saying now,” Jumblatt said, hoping to re-gain the “trust” of the Resistance party.

Qifa Nabki, on the other hand, has tried to predict the outcome of the elections. Not only is he predicting a victory to the Hezballah-led  opposition alliance, but an increasing possibility that Hezballah's main Christian ally in Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) may wind up holding the largest number of seats out of all the parties … including Hezballah.

For the past several months, polls published by both sides have predicted a swing of less than ten seats, and occasionally less than  five. When I did the numbers on the blog two months ago, I tentatively forecasted a very slim win for the opposition (66-62). Of course,  it could easily go the other way depending on how things play out in the swing districts of Beirut I, Zahle, and the Metn.

But assuming that this situation obtains, what would Lebanon’s new majority look like, in terms of its constituent blocs? Due to the built-in confessional quotas of the Lebanese political system, and the fact that Hizbullah has pointedly refrained from seeking more parliament seats than it won in 2005, a March 8th majority would — by necessity — have to be dominated by the Michel Aoun-led Change & Reform bloc.

In 2005, Hizbullah, AMAL, and their allies (SSNP, Baath, and a couple of independents) won 35 seats, while the FPM and its allies in the Change & Reform bloc won 21 seats, producing an opposition of 56 seats (out of 128). Assuming that Hizbullah/AMAL/& friends can win 35 again (a safe bet), Aoun’s bloc will have to come up with at least 30 seats to get to 65. If Hizbullah and Berri offer Aoun their three seats in the Christian district of Jezzine (which they swept in 2005), this will mean that the Change & Reform Bloc (which will include the Free Patriotic Movement, Suleiman Frangieh’s Marada, Elias Skaff’s Zahle list, Tashnaq, and some independents) will be 33-strong. And this is under the condition that the opposition wins only the slimmest of majorities, at 65. If they bump it to 68, C&R could have as many as 36 seats, which is the number that the Future Movement won in 2005.

The point: if March 8 wins, Aoun will be the big man on campus as he will preside over a bloc that is larger than all of Hizbullah, AMAL, etc. combined, and this is surely by design. To those who scoff, saying that while Aoun may look like he is in charge, everybody will know who wears the pants in the coalition, I would simply advise you to spend half an hour with the General. You’ll be disabused of that notion (and your pants too, for that matter) rather quickly.

Remarkz has attempted to allay concerns from staunch March 14 supporters that a victory for the Hezballah-led alliance spells the return of Syria's domination over its smaller neighbour:

In my own opinion, Syria’s role as the arbiter of last resort is on the wane. This development has little to do with technicolor exercises in mass delusion and nearly everything to do with the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 and the attendant political consequences.
Indeed, I might say that the ruling coalition’s anti-Syrian barking provided the regime in Damascus with a wider berth on the Lebanese scene than it will know in the future.

In my own take of the election campaign on my blog, Lebanese Chess, I have alluded to a new politik taking place in Lebanon as a consequence of the convergence of sectarian interests with the formation of multi-sectarian political alliances:

Whilst the past four turbulent years have been marred by heightened sectarian competition on the surface, an undercurrent of entangled co-operation among the sects and the realisation that no sect can act alone has produced an intertwined political web.

The fact that groups like Hezballah are releasing, for the first time, a national agenda – to remove confessionalism from the political system, introduce proportional voting, combat corruption and lower the voting age to 18 – is evidence that the political dynamics in the country have indeed changed. Hizballah, renowned as a fundamentalist Shia organisation, has spent much of its three-decade existence sticking to its Shia corner, avoiding at all times the central and corrupt Lebanese political process. This led to rivals accusing Hezballah of creating a state-within-a-state. But given recent developments, the Shia party has made a major u-turn and has acknowledged that investing in a central authority (the Lebanese political establishment) is necessary to protect the interests of the Shias. That is, the interests of the Shias are intertwined with the interests of all sects and groups in Lebanon.

Sectarian groups have realised that in order to protect the interests of their community, they must indeed take into consideration the interests of other communities, therefore investing in the state's institutions (such as its political process) becomes essential.

And, finally, there is a new Lebanese blog that is devoted entirely to the coverage of the June elections, titled Lebanese Elections 2009.

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