A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Lebanese Results

An old tradition in US politics is for a candidate who's behind in the polls to say that the only poll he/she cares about is the one on election day. That would have been a good slogan for the March 14 Movement in Lebanon, who, despite polls running against them, seem to have achieved a fairly comfortable win in the Lebanese Parliamentary elections.

The final results appear to be 68 seats for March 14 (the Hariri forces and their allies), 57 for March 8 (Hizbullah, General Aoun and their allies) and three independents.

That's the good news. The bad news is that this is rather similar to the outgoing Parliament, which has been stalemated for several years. A major issue is sure to be the minority's pressure for a minority veto in the Cabinet in exchange for joining the coalition.

The issue stems from a provision in the Lebanese Constitution that on major natonal issues, the Cabinet needs a two-thirds majority to approve policies. As I've noted before, Lebanese tradition is to try to create consensus and therefore there is a natural desire to include at least some of the opposition in a national unity government. But if the opposition makes up one third of the government plus one, it has an effective blocking veto. Now that it is clear that March 14 will have the majority, March 8 can be expected to press for a national unity government in which it would have such a veto. Unlike the government vs. opposition model of the US or Britain, the tradition in Lebanon has always been to seek consensus through a broad coalition.

So far, Sa‘d Hariri, Walid Jumblatt and their allies have been conciliatory, not boasting about their victory over much or seeking to exclude the opposition. But whether the stalemates of the past four years are going to return remains to be seen. The real loser seems to be General Aoun, though the Western media will interpret it as a defeat for Hizbullah. The latter, however, did just fine in its heartland in South Lebanon.

Besides the Lebanese newspapers there are many good bloggers covering the elections, of whom Qifa Nabki remains one of the most useful and well-informed. I've linked to his homepage rather than an individual post since he already has several up since the vote results.

Why did so many observers expect at least a narrow win by the opposition, yet it didn't happen? One reason may be that opinion generally shifted in the last days of the campaign. Sheikh Nasrallah remarked last week that the Hizbullah takeover of West Beirut in May of last year had been a great moment; a lot of Beirutis still see it as more of an attempted coup, and that may

have hurt March 8. I already mentioned an incident in which Hizbullah followers bused to an Aoun rally were changing Shi‘ite slogans at General Aoun's audience of middle class Christians, and perhaps many Christians, however they may feel about Aoun, did not want to give Hizbullah a victory. Turnout seems to have been quite heavy in Christian areas, and the Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Sfeir, made remarks on Saturday warning of a threat to Lebanon's "unity and its Arab identity." The "Arab identity" remark was presumably aimed at Iran, Hizbullah's patron. There are reports that Hizbullah tried to block publication of the remarks on the grounds that a cleric should not get involved in politics, a curious position since Nasrallah, the head of Hizbullah, is a cleric himself.

Turnout was generally higher than in the 2005 elections, which may reflect a determination by the Hariri side to block Hizbullah.

In any event, my warnings over the past week about not panicking if Hizbullah "wins" are moot: it didn't. In fact this is something of a blow to Hizbullah, not because it suffered major losses (rather it stayed about the same), but because expectations had been raised, and then disappointed. And the same caveat applies as would have applied had the vote gone the other way: the negotiations for a coalition and who is included are when the real significance of the vote becomes apparent.

More as new information emerges.

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