Hezbollah handed a stinging defeat

Posted in Broader Middle East | 08-Jun-09 | Author: Sami Moubayed| Source: Asia Times

A man checks newspapers' headlines a day after Lebanese parliamentary elections, in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, June 8, 2009.

DAMASCUS - The results of Sunday's Lebanese parliamentary elections were unexpected, with early results showing the pro-Western March 14 coalition scoring a landslide victory. The coalition has retained its majority by capturing anywhere between 68 to 70 seats of the 128-seat parliament.

The Hezbollah-led opposition, which had been expected to take the majority, emerged with only 50 seats, although eight seats are still to be announced in the Metn region. Early results show that of these eight seats, only two were taken by March 14 coalition candidates - Michel al-Murr and Sami Gemayel - while the remaining six went to Hezbollah.

Even with an additional six seats, meaning the opposition bloc would control 56 seats, March 14 would still have a clear majority. According to the Taif Accords, hammered out by Syria and Saudi Arabia to end the Lebanese civil war 20 years ago, parliament is divided along the following lines: 27 seats (Sunnis), 27 seats (Shi'ites), 34 seats (Maronite Christians), while the remaining 40 seats are allocated to Druze, Greek Orthodox and Alawites.

There were no surprises in this regard on Sunday. Hezbollah and Amal candidates captured all 27 seats allocated to the Shi'ites. The Saad al-Hariri bloc took the majority of the 27 seats allocated for Sunnis. The real tipping point was the Christian vote, divided between former army commander Michel Aoun on one front, and a coalition of Christian leaders, headed by ex-president Amin Gemayel and ex-warlord Samir Gagega, on the other. The Christian vote emerged as more united behind March 14 than it was around Michel Aoun, explaining the 20-seat difference between the camps.

It is unclear how regional players will react to the results. The Iranians are too busy, planning for their own elections, scheduled for Friday. The Syrians have promised to support whatever choice is made by the people of Lebanon. They would not interfere, they repeatedly said to American and European guests over the past two weeks. During a meeting with his Saudi counterpart Saud al-Faisal, Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem also pledged to work with Riyadh to carry out smooth elections in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, campaigning directly with 11 candidates, won all of its allocated seats, taking the towns of Nabatiyeh, Marjeyoun, Hasbaya, Tyre and Bin Jbeil. None of its candidates lost. Its ally, former minister Suleiman Franjiyeh, took his native town of Zghorta, a leading Christian stronghold. The Free Patriotic Movement of Aoun took Christian strongholds such as Kesrouan, Jbeil, Baabda and Jezzine.

Meanwhile, the electoral list for Hariri, who returns to head the parliamentary majority, scored a clean sweep in Beirut, Batroun, Koura, Bsherri and Tripoli. March 14 also swept districts like al-Shouf, where Druze leader Walid Jumblatt ran unopposed. Many of the old faces of March 14 returned to the front, including Hariri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, his two allies Ghazi al-Aridi, former information minister, and Marwan Hamadeh, former minister of telecommunications.

They Hariri candidates allied themselves with newcomer Tammam Salam, the current minister of culture who is scion to one of the heavyweight Sunni families of Beirut. In the northern city of Tripoli they sided with ex-prime minister Najib Mikati, who headed a caretaker cabinet for 90 days to supervise the elections of 2005.

The elections are important for many reasons:
1. These are likely to be the last elections for Aoun, 74. Although he won a seat with ease in Keserwan, he was eyeing a parliamentary majority, and did not get it. Likewise, he wanted to become president in 2007-2008, but also failed at securing a seat at Baabda Palace. The next time the Lebanese go to the polls, Aoun will be 78 - too old for the presidential office, and probably too frail for parliament.

His aging ally Issam Abu Jamra, a retired officer, won no more than 8,882 votes in these elections, while young candidate Nayla Tweini, in her mid-20s, came out with 13,230. As these candidates become older, voters are naturally, becoming younger.
2. A rising generation of young politicians is emerging, like Tweini and Sami Gemayel, both in their 20s, who are likely to set the trend for young Lebanese. Although hailing from leading political families, both are complete newcomers to the political scene.

Tweini is the daughter of slain An-Nahhar publisher Gibran Tweini, and granddaughter of the veteran journalist Ghassan Tweini. Gemayel's father is ex-president Amin Gemayel. His uncle is slain president Bashir Gemayel, while his brother is slain minister, Pierre Gemayel. Despite their ancestry, both MPs are young, fresh and hold no responsibility for any of the mistakes of the past carried out by their fathers and grandfathers.

3. These elections will lead to a cabinet change. The two names earmarked to replace Fouad Siniora as premier are Hariri and Tripoli MP and ex-prime minister Najib Mikati. Although 15 years apart, the two men are among the richest in Lebanon. According to Forbes magazine, they are among the richest in the world as well, with Mikati worth US$2.6 billion, while Hariri is worth $5.1 billion.

Mikati is self-made, having personally turned his telecommunications company into a giant empire in the early 1980s. Hariri, who inherited his fortune after the killing of his father in 2005, also inherited his political position. Mikati worked for his, starting up the ladder as minister of public works in 1998. He then became a deputy in parliament in 2000, and in 2005 served as interim prime minister.

Using their 50 seats, the Hezbollah-led opposition will never allow Hariri to become prime minister, meaning the post is likely to go to Mikati, who is acceptable to all parties, and is friends with the Syrians.

In Lebanon's neighborhoods, the election results came as a surprise to many. The Saudis and Americans had both implicitly warned Lebanese voters that if they voted for Aoun or the Hezbollah-led opposition, it would mean an investment crisis for Lebanon.

In an joint interview with the London-based al-Hayat on Saturday, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffery Feltman said: "The election's outcome will naturally affect world's stance towards the new Lebanese government and the manner in which the United States and Congress deal with Lebanon."

He added, "I believe the Lebanese are smart enough to understand that there will be an effect. When Hezbollah claims that there won't be any effect, when it claims that it is not interested in the matter, I tend to believe that the Lebanese with their intelligence would think otherwise."

He then criticized Aoun, who has been saying that the Christians of Lebanon should not rely on the United States, saying: "One of your politicians is proposing that Christians shouldn't depend on the United States. I hope the Lebanese had accurately listened to the president's [Barack Obama] speech that specifically pointed to the widest Christian religious minority in Lebanon, the Maronites. The president spoke about the need for respecting all peoples in the region including minorities ... I hope the Lebanese would ask themselves: do we want to be on the side of the international community and close to the stances that President Obama made? I hope they would say yes."

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.