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Time for Change?
Understanding Lebanon’s June Elections
by RANNIE AMIRI

“ … it is in the interest of Lebanon and its stability that there is understanding and partnership among Lebanese in running their country’s affairs.”

– Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, on Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections

“We will not take part in the government if the [Hezbollah-led] March 8 Alliance wins the elections … ”

– Parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri

In the Middle East, there are “elections” and there are elections. The majority, when they do occur, invariably fall under the first category. There are a few however, that fall under the second – transparent, legitimate, meaningful contests that have both domestic and regional implications.

One of the most notable took place in January 2006 when Hamas swept Palestinian parliamentary polls, giving them the majority in the Palestine National Council and the ability to form a government. Monitored by the Carter Center, former President Jimmy Carter called them “open, honest, and fair contests.” The reaction they engendered in the U.S., Israel and Egypt – and the subsequent punishment meted out on the electorate – needs little elaboration.

This June, two Middle East countries will be holding elections of consequence a mere five days apart; Lebanon on June 7 and Iran on June 12.  

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s faceoff against reformist candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi was recently discussed.

Due to the Lebanon’s complex, sectarian-based political framework, understanding the mechanics and dynamics behind its upcoming parliamentary vote is more complicated.

March 8 vs. March 14

In Lebanon today there are two main political coalitions, dubbed March 8 and March 14.

The March 8 Alliance is named after the date of a massive 2005 Beirut rally organized by Hezbollah that expressed opposition to its disarmament, support for Syria, and resistance to Israel. The coalition is primarily comprised of Hezbollah, Nabih Berri’s Amal party, and the secular Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of General Michel Aoun. Unlike Nasrallah and Berri who are Shia Muslims, Aoun is a Maronite Christian and thus draws support from this and other Christian constituencies.

The March 14 Alliance is also named after the date of a huge 2005 Beirut demonstration, but one decidedly anti-Syrian. It occurred exactly one month after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and heralded the beginning of the “Cedar Revolution.” This ultimately led to the withdrawal of all Syrian troops from Lebanon after 29 years. March 14 is the current Western-backed, ruling coalition and is principally comprised of Sunni, Druze, and Christian parties. It is led Saad Hariri, billionaire son of Rafiq, and his Future Movement forms its largest bloc.

The tension and mutual recriminations between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions dramatically increased after the July 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon. This led to an 18-month political standoff whereby the country was left without a president and fears of a return to civil war were reignited.

The longstanding stalemate was finally resolved when representative of both sides met in Qatar in May 2008 and the Doha Accord was reached. In the Accord, the March 8 Alliance’s demand of having veto-power over cabinet decisions was granted. Once this and other obstacles were overcome, consensus nominee Michel Suleiman was quickly elected president.

Parliamentary Arithmetic

Next, it is important to appreciate how Lebanon’s parliament is structured.

The Chamber of Deputies, or National Assembly, is made up of 128 seats divided equally between Christians and Muslims. The seats are further subdivided among the nation’s 18 recognized religious sects (Maronite Christians are allotted 34, Orthodox 14, Sunni 27, Shia 27, etc.). It should be stressed that this apportionment is not based on any recent demographic information; Lebanon’s last census was conducted in 1932 and has not been repeated since.

In the National Assembly, the March 14 Alliance holds 70 seats and March 8, 58.

Considering that most all Shia and Sunni candidates belong to March 8 and March 14 respectively, seats held by these two sects are unlikely to change hands and tip the balance either way.

Instead, the deciding factor in the legislative poll will likely be how the Christian vote splits; to Aoun’s FPM or to Christian parties affiliated with March 14. This similarly holds true for the Druze vote which also has parties in both coalitions, but to a lesser extent.

Analysts believe there will be only about 30 truly contested seats, and March 8 need only win an additional seven to gain the parliamentary majority.

Generals Released

A development which may help them achieve that goal occurred this week. Four generals detained without charge for nearly four years in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination were unconditionally released under orders of the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The Tribunal judge concluded there was no evidence to justify their continued detention, which was based solely on recanted witness testimony, and said the generals were no longer considered suspects.

“Our detention was politically motivated and was exploited for four years by the majority. We were jailed by a political decision but were freed by a court ruling,” said one upon his release.

Lebanese judiciary officials who first ordered their detention are close allies of Saad Hariri, and he may indeed suffer the political consequences as demands for their resignation start to grow.

Time For Change?

Based on an expected narrow margin of victory, no sect, group, party, or alliance will be able to effectively govern Lebanon in isolation. The clear necessity to reach across political and religious lines makes Lebanon unique among Arab countries and is exactly what Hassan Nasrallah, in the opening quote, indicated. Unfortunately, it appears Hariri does not think likewise should March 14 be unable to claim victory.

The possibility of replacing a pro-U.S. government in Lebanon, step-child of the equally pro-American Egypt-Jordan-Saudi nexus, caused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to show up unannounced in Beirut last weekend. Interfering in an election she called for non-interference in, an implicit threat of aid reduction was made should March 8 emerge victorious. Israel is also planning large-scale military exercises on the Lebanese border the week prior to the vote.

Intimidation and threats notwithstanding, Lebanon’s spring elections may serve as yet another example of the dwindling influence of leaders who have unabashedly sided with the U.S. and their policies in the Middle East; whether they be reflexively anti-Iranian, supportive of Israel’s siege and attack on Gaza, or aim to stifle their citizens’ ability to freely express themselves in the media or at the ballot box.

In the latter circumstance, Lebanon is certainly the exception. And on June 7, it has the ability to divorce itself from the U.S.-Israel-Egypt-Jordan-Saudi axis and send a powerful message to the rest of the Arab world: if little Lebanon can do it, so can you.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri AT yahoo DOT com.