x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Blocs set out stance on sharing of power

March 14 coalition is unwilling to continue with a unity government but Hizbollah hints it is happy to do so with the support of defectors.

BEIRUT // On the eve of what might be Lebanon's most tightly and passionately contested elections since its independence over half a century ago, both sides have begun to indicate what the critical post-election scramble to establish power through a cabinet will look like.

The battle between the Hizbollah-led opposition coalition of Shiite Muslims and their Christian allies and the current government alliance of Sunnis, Druze and other Christian parties will most likely be decided by contests in less than 30 voting districts, leaving any election winner with too slim a margin to dominate the formation of a cabinet.

Currently, Lebanon has a unity government that incorporates a majority of the government coalition, with the opposition able to block any legislation and most of the key ministries controlled by loyalists to the president, Michel Suleiman, who is widely seen as neutral in the election battle.

Although accurate polling remains virtually impossible in Lebanon due to strong political tensions over the exact number of Lebanese, the opposition appears confident that the numbers will work out in their favour. They repeated this week that they would use a victory to form a unity government that incorporates its opponents into a new cabinet.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Hizbollah deputy secretary general Naim Qassem said that the opposition expects to win a majority by between three and six seats and would then ask its opponents to join a unity government.

"After June 7, there will be a new scene," said Mr Qassem, who leads Hizbollah's election campaign. He said Hizbollah and its allies "will work to form a unity government. How much we will succeed is up to the other side".

The Future Movement's Saad Hariri, who is widely seen as the leader of the government bloc, has rejected personally working with the opposition in a unity government should it win, and has said that a victory for the so-called "March 14" movement would end the era of unity governments.

But Mr Qassem also said that he expects some March 14 parties to join his coalition in a unity government, immediately leading to suspicions that Druze leader Walid Jumblatt would leave March 14 and join a unity government.

Although he refused to comment, Mr Jumblatt will likely control more than 20 seats in the upcoming parliament and is famous for his ability to mend fences with former enemies when it serves his or his community's political interests. Mr Jumblatt has also expressed blunt frustration with the attitudes and policies of both Mr Hariri and their Christian allies, including the former warlord Samir Geagea. In an infamous video that made the rounds of Beirut and the internet, Mr Jumblatt could be seen telling supporters that both Mr Hariri and Mr Geagea were happy to let the Druze fight Hizbollah on their behalf, something they were unwilling to do themselves and cited last May's bloody sectarian clashes, which saw the Sunnis trounced by Hizbollah, while the Druze effectively protected their territory from the Shiite gunmen.

Mr Jumblatt also raised eyebrows when he condemned a German magazine report that linked Hizbollah to the 2005 murder of Saad Hariri's father, a statement that was publicly embraced by his long-standing rival, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, during a campaign speech last week.

For its part, other than Mr Jumblatt, who seems to be pursuing reconciliation with his political enemies, the rest of March 14's coalition has been less generous.

In an interview with local television, Mr Geagea did not completely rule out participating in an opposition unity government, as Mr Hariri did, but he stood by the decision to refuse to offer a continuation of the unity government to the opposition should March 14 prevail.

Instead, said Mr Geagea, the cabinet would offer a blocking third of the cabinet seats to a bloc loyal to Mr Suleiman.