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Previewing Lebanon’s Parliamentary Elections

Joe Biden spent seven hours in Beirut on Friday, the highest ranking US official to visit Lebanon in over 25 years. The timing of his stopover was no coincidence.

Two weeks from Sunday, Lebanese citizens will head to the polls in a milestone parliamentary election. They will vote for local representatives, choosing from pre-made lists of candidates and sometimes formulating their own. It’s a complex and asinine process and in a shallow setting that’s heavily influenced by outside forces. Biden’s visit was a show of support for president Michel Suleiman and the current majority coalition. He reaffirmed positions top-ranking US diplomats had made clear in previous visits. The irony is that American officials preach against foreign interference while feigning obliviousness to the intended consequences of their actions. But not everyone is fooled by their hypocrisy. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nassrallah said Biden’s visit and other recent US diplomatic stunts raised “strong suspicion and amounted to a clear and detailed interference in Lebanon’s affairs.”

The US has given over $1 billion to the Lebanese government since 2006; over $400 million has been military aid. Biden confirmed that could soon change, saying, “we will evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates.” In other words, the US has a vested interest in helping its allies succeed. The same is also true for other countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria.

A month ago, the New York Times published an article entitled Foreign Money Seeks to Buy Lebanese Votes – the title is self explanatory. According to the author, this summer’s parliamentary elections “are shaping up to be among the most expensive ever held anywhere.” Although most Lebanese people aren’t for sale, in a country where corruption is rampant and buying votes is common practice, money is likely to be a deciding factor. Saudi Arabia has the most to spend, so Saad Hariri’s bloc should fare well. The question is, how successful will his rivals be? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess; but the opposition is reportedly poised to do well, which makes Biden’s visit and its timing all the more significant.

Election season is in full effect. There’s a real cast of characters on the campaign trail, and the final lists are expected to be released over the weekend. Alliances could shift considerably by the time it’s all said and done. For those who are undecided (i.e. not blind followers of any particular party or sect) anything could make a difference. Just as the recent release of four men held for the assassination of Rafik Hariri was likely to impact prospective voters, so too does a visit by the Vice President of the United States (regardless of how much of a buffoon he may be). The same is true of the four tumultuous years that have gone by since the last election. Everything factors in somehow, every incident, every word and every move; it all matters in shaping voters’ perceptions.

The election results will affect foreign policy and certain national security measures, but major domestic issues will continue to be neglected. Alliances will change, but the status quo will stay the same. The political system in Lebanon is inherently screwed up. It’s a playing field for a select few who compete ruthlessly for power and prestige. Those with foreign backing tend to do best. Qualified individuals are rarely welcome. That’s because government positions are divided according to sect and candidates are forced to make questionable alliances. Principled individuals need to make difficult compromises if they wish to succeed, and a number have already withdrawn from the races.

Hussein al-Husseini is one of them. He was a pioneer of the resistance who co-founded the Amal Movement. He was also chief architect of the Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War. He was running for parliament on a positive reform platform, but el-Husseini became so disgusted with the political process that he ended his campaign and promised to continue his fight against sectarianism on the sidelines of government.

Nassib Lahoud is another one who fell. Many had said that his withdrawal was due to divisions within the Christian community, but Lahoud explained that he dropped out because he was not willing to make the necessary compromises. He complained that under the current set of circumstances, feudal lords are encouraged to maintain their fiefdoms at the expense of real national progress. Once a contender for the presidency, another reformer with an actual agenda is out of the picture.

The loss of el-Husseini, Lahoud and others like them is regrettable because they are precisely the kind of people who should be in positions of authority (they could still be given ministerial portfolios). But because they are reformists who put national interests before personal/tribal gain, they are effectively shunned from the halls of power, unless they are willing to betray their principles. Politics is a dirty game, and in Lebanon it gets downright filthy.

June’s elections will be crucial and they could have significant global repercussions. If Hezbollah does as well as some people are expecting, the US will once again be faced with a democratically elected government controlled by members of a “terrorist organization.” Although alliances are not fixed, deals have already been struck that could see Hezbollah end up with considerable control over the next government. 

Anything can happen. The veteran Walid Joumblatt has been playing it safe, sounding a more conciliatory note with Hezbollah and trying to make nice with his Christian allies after a video was released in which he was seen lambasting them. The Maronite community is deeply divided in the “March 14″ camp which should play well into the hands of the controversial Michel Aoun. Hariri’s support remains strong, as his minions continue to wreak havoc in the north. The stage is set for an exciting election.

A little over a week ago, Hassan Nassrallah delivered an impassioned commencement address in which he implied victory was assured for his allies. He began by calling for national unity, saying that federalism is not an option. He then delved into a lengthy discussion about Hezbollah and its role in Lebanese society. Recalling some of his rivals’ campaign slogans such as “we’ll never forget May 7th” (the day Hezbollah and its allies took to the streets last year), Nassrallah said he hopes they never do, because that was the day in which another civil war was prevented. He claims that thousands of men, charged with causing an insurrection, were brought into Beirut on the eve of a questionable cabinet vote that called for the dismantlement of Hezbollah’s communication network. By effectively taking control of the streets – in clashes that left dozens dead – he argues that his organization pre-empted its enemies and averted a civil war in the making. That may very well be true, but not everyone agrees that the ends justified the means.

Nevertheless, Nassarallah is one of the shrewdest politicians in the Middle East, and he commands greater loyalty than anyone else in Lebanon. What he says usually makes sense, even if the delivery is not one that is easily digested by the international community. The truth is Hezbollah has done much for the country, both good and bad. The media has been playing up the negative aspects while ignoring the demographic and political realities on the ground. Ostracism is not the answer.

But the essence of Hezbollah symbolizes everything wrong with Lebanese politics. The organization operates independently of the state while its actions affect the entire country. Its very existence undermines the national sovereignty its leader speaks so highly of. The only way for Hezbollah to gain legitimacy is for it to be incorporated with official state institutions such as the military and intelligence services (almost like a Lebanese secret service). In theory there is no reason why that couldn’t happen, but in practice there would be strong resistance from both sides. While this issue is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, the results of this summer’s elections will serve as a strong indicator as to which direction the country is heading.

Of course it could all change in an instant. A mysterious carbomb, street clashes, or an Israeli bombing campaign… Lebanon is still living on the edge – a country of competing national identities.

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