x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Lebanon's election surprise

After a victory for the Hizbollah-led opposition had been widely anticipated, a constellation of factors tipped the balance in the March 14 coalition's favour bringing an end to the jinx of Western support, at least for now. An election-eve warning from Lebanon's Maronite Christian patriarch who warned that the country faced a threat to its existence may also have been decisive in promoting fear of the Islamist group and its allies.

After a victory for the Hizbollah-led opposition had been widely anticipated, a constellation of factors tipped the balance in the March 14 coalition's favour bringing an end to the jinx of Western support, at least for now. An election-eve warning from Lebanon's Maronite Christian patriarch who warned that the country faced a threat to its existence may also have been decisive in promoting fear of the Islamist group and its allies. As The New York Times noted: "for the first time in a long time, being aligned with the United States did not lead to defeat in the Middle East. And since Lebanon has always been a critical testing ground, that could mark a possibly significant shift in regional dynamics with another major election, in Iran, just four days away. "With Mr Obama's speech on relations with Muslims still fresh in Lebanese voters' minds, analysts pointed to steps the administration has taken since assuming office. "Washington is now proposing talking to Hizbollah's patrons, Iran and Syria, rather than confronting them - a move that undermines the group's attempt to demonise the United States. The United States is also no longer pressing its allies in the Lebanese government to unilaterally disarm Hizbollah, which given the party's considerable remaining clout, could have provoked a crisis. " 'Lebanon is a telling case,' said Osama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies here. 'It is no longer relevant for the extremists to use the anti-American card. It does look like the US is moving onto something new.' " In an interview with Foreign Relations, Mohamad Bazzi said: "One of the most important things to keep in mind is that Hizbollah itself did not lose any of the seats that it had coming into this election. The entire premise of this election was that Hizbollah's main Christian ally, General Michel Aoun, would be the one to pick up more seats - that he would pick up more of the Christian-dominated seats and therefore, this would give that alliance a shot at winning the majority. Aoun did not do as well as expected; he did not pick up more seats. So therefore this Hizbollah-led alliance did not win the majority. We have a scenario now with a distribution of seats similar to the current one we have. The March 14th coalition, the pro-Western movement, has sixty-eight seats, Hizbollah and Aoun and their other allies have fifty-seven seats, and it appears that there are three independents who've won seats. Most likely these independents will ally themselves with March 14th, so we might have a breakdown of seventy-one to fifty-seven, which for Lebanon is a significant majority... "I think US support played some role in the election results, but I would be careful not to over dramatise the US role. I think in general there is a better feeling in Lebanon about the Obama administration than there was about the Bush administration. There's perhaps less of a stigma attached to being allied with the United States as the March 14th coalition is allied with the United States. But the more important factor in the Christian community seems to be the remarks by the Maronite Christian patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, who on the eve of the election, warned voters about what he called this attempt to change Lebanon's character and its Arab identity, which is a thinly-veiled reference to Hizbollah and its main backer, Iran. So that might have pushed some voters, some Christian voters, away from General Aoun and his ally Hizbollah and might have convinced them to vote for the March 14th faction. That intervention by Cardinal Sfeir was probably much more important than anything that the United States had said." Shortly before voters went to the polls, Reuters reported: "Lebanon's Maronite Christian patriarch said on Saturday his country faced a threat to its existence, appearing to take sides against Hizbollah on the eve of an election whose outcome will be decided by the Christian vote. "The influential Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, who has already warned of 'mistakes' were the Islamist group and its allies to win the election, spoke of 'a threat to the Lebanese entity and its Arab identity.' His remarks were reported by the National News Agency." Joshua Landis considered what the election outcome will mean for policy. "Much depends on whether March 14 tries to rewrite Doha and get rid of the blocking third in Lebanon's cabinet, as Hariri said he would do. He may feel obliged to carry through with this, or at the very least, raise it as his initial battle cry, because his win was more substantial than expected. My hunch is that any attempt to undo Doha will threaten to take Lebanon back to the paralysis and dark days of the pre-Doha era and will thus be abandoned. There is no stomach for such extremism today - not in Washington, Riyadh, or in Damascus or Tehran. The Obama era has changed things and Syria is waiting to move ahead with the US. "In many respects, Syria-US relations have been on hold, awaiting the outcome of the June 7 elections. Now that elections are over business can resume. The US, gratified at their results, can send Mitchell to Damascus as a sign of magnanimity in victory. Washington will be in a stronger position, but ironically, Damascus too may feel a certain relief in the very highest halls of the foreign ministry. It has avoided the complications of an Hizbollah win, which could have strained already bad relations with the US even further." In an analysis of the breakdown of voting, Lebanon's Daily Star reported: "Monolithic sectarian voting by Lebanon's Sunnis and Shiites decided the results of Sunday's general elections, upending conventional wisdom that the country's Christians would determine the vote's winner, a number of analysts told The Daily Star on Monday. Christian-majority districts remained the crucial electoral battlegrounds, but the unexpected weight of Sunni voters in the Zahle, Koura and Beirut 1 precincts swung the poll in favour of the March 14 alliance, which won 71 of 128 Parliament seats, said Hilal Khashan, head of the department of political studies and public administration at the American University of Beirut. Meanwhile, Shiite voters in the Christian-majority regions of Baabda, Jbeil and Jezzine - as well as Armenian electors in the Metn - clinched resounding victories for the lists of the March 8 coalition's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Khashan added. " 'The outcome of the election did surprise most of us,' he said, adding that the final tally also revealed the absence of reliable polling information about voter preferences. 'Contrary to expectations, it was not the Christian vote that determined the outcome - it was the Sunni and Shiite voters. It was the Sunni vote that ensured the defeat of the [FPM head] Michel Aoun electoral list.' "The nearly uniform sectarian voting patterns also uncovered a deep democracy deficit in the elections, trumpeted regionally and internationally as a model for the largely undemocratic Middle East, said Shafik Masri, professor of constitutional law. " 'We can hardly speak of a Lebanese voter - we can speak of sect voters,' he said, adding that the absence of voters supporting independent candidates or casting blank ballots also underscored the disturbing lesson. 'This actually deformed the individual right [to vote] into a crystallized sectarian voting. The voting adjective is "collective," but not "individual." ' " In Forbes, Lionel Laurent wrote: "Judging by this election, it takes fear and money to promote democracy in Lebanon. Government supporters feared that the Shiite Muslim militant group Hizbollah, seen as an armed puppet of its backers in Syria and Iran, would win a parliamentary majority with its own allies and spark a national crisis. The Hariri bloc knew how to exploit this fear on the campaign trail when it claimed that a victory for the Hizbollah-led opposition would lead to a tripartite sharing of government and administrative posts between Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Christians. They are currently only shared two ways, between Muslims and Christians. "A related fear was also how the international community would react to a Hizbollah victory. American Vice-President Joe Biden visited Lebanon last month to say in no uncertain terms that a Hizbollah-led government should not expect American aid to flow as freely as before. US ally Saudi Arabia is also a strong financial backer of Lebanon, supporting Sunni interests in the deeply-fragmented country. And although Israel failed to bomb Hizbollah out of existence in the 2006 Lebanon War, an electoral victory for the Shia group might heighten the chances of another conflict. "Then there was money. Cash came in handy when flying Lebanese expatriates into the country to cast their vote on Sunday, a tactic which all sides reportedly dabbled in. Tales abound of parties buying $700 plane tickets for citizens abroad, with Iran, Syria and rival Saudi Arabia reported to be contributing to a $1 billion travel pot in total splashed across the country. Evidently March 14 still managed to tip the balance in this arena, with Hizbollah's main Christian ally, Michel Aoun, failing to tear crucial votes away from Christian allies of Hariri like the right-wing Phalangists."

pwoodward@thenational.ae