Sunday, June 12, 2005

Lebanon elections: a step ahead

Lebanon’s Elections: A Step Ahead?

Ghassan Rubeiz, June 12, 2005 ( not published)

The Lebanese are at a political crossroads. The people are eager to reduce government corruption and to deal with sectarian political power sharing. They want to reduce excessive dependence on external powers; some point to Syria and Iran, others resent the influence of Israel, the US and France.
The Lebanese want to experience political justice and healing. They want to find out who killed Harriri (and other leaders) in order to stop the killing of future leaders who show promise and hope.
The Lebanese wish to be reconciled with their national identity and with one another. The people, especially the young, want to embrace their neighbors across an invisible community line, to unite nationally across religious boundaries, boundaries that politicians have for too long erected for their convenience.

There is an impressive grass-roots movement for change that has emerged in the wake of the death of Prime Minister Rafic Harriri. Christians and Muslims united through organized and peaceful demonstrations and succeeded in easing Syria out of their country in a relatively short time. The Lebanese discovered political power through organized advocacy and social action. Soon after this “Cedar Revolution”, public attention shifted to parliamentary elections.

National elections, held every four years, are structured to divide the communities along sectarian lines. In the three (out of four) weekly electoral rounds that started on May 29, 100 (of a total 128) parliament members have been chosen. The fourth and last round, on June 19, will conclude the formation of a new parliament with three powerful groupings. The three winning political blocks are full of promises but short on workable programs. They are Hezbollah, the Harriri Block, and the Aoun Block.

After this election, the Hezbollah block is the strongest political force. The Shiite community dominates this block of 35 Members of Parliament. Hezbollah (with leader Hasan Nasrallah) has economic recovery, distribution of wealth and military resistance among its priorities. Hezbollah’s reluctance to disband its militia may turn out to be the most divisive issue among the Lebanese. Some Lebanese feel that if Hezbollah disarms unconditionally, Israel will regain its hegemonic influence on Lebanon. Hezbollah’s increased popularity in the polls gives it some degree of local legitimacy. Eloquent supporters of this “resistance” movement argue that Hezbollah will feel secure enough to demilitarize only after the Arab/Israel crisis is solved. Intensive local and regional diplomacy is needed to convince Hezbollah to disarm voluntarily in order to enhance Lebanon’s image internationally and to allow the national army to regain its monopoly of use of force.

The Harriri block currently, made up of 44 MPs, is likely to gain more members in the fourth and last round of elections. Sa’ad Harriri inherited his political leadership after his father’s tragic assassination. This multi-confessional, Sunni-dominated cluster champions business, modernity, close cooperation with the international community, and bringing justice to the victims of political assassination. Harriri’s wealth greases its political machine. Its alliances are in some cases marriages of convenience. It is not surprising that the Harriri coalition seems to have lost interest in putting pressure on Hezbollah to disarm. In return, it expects electoral support from the Shiite community.

The Sunnites have Harriri, the Shiites have Nasrallah, and now the Christian have Aoun. General Aoun provides the Christian community a strong leader. The biggest surprise of the elections has been the sweeping victory of General Michel Aoun’s political slate. This civil-service reform coalition is likely to increase its 21 MPs in the June 19 election round. The youth are well represented in Aoun’s movement. Aoun’s blunt articulation of demands for policy change is not unlike the rhetorical claims of Democratic Party chairman, Howard Dean. After living 15 years in Paris, Aoun casts himself as the patron of modern Lebanon.

Aoun is unjustifiably accused of being pro-Syrian. Although he was the victim of Syria’s occupation to Lebanon, Aoun is less worried than before about Syria’s influence in Lebanese affairs. His primary campaign is focused on accountability of politics and transparency of governance. He is currently too weak outside the Christian community to confront the residual influence of Syria. Critics are more skeptical of his electoral alliances with some shady political figures than his flexibility towards Syria’s hegemony.

He promises to uncover the causes of evil: corruption of recent regimes that led the country to a national debt, estimated way over 100% of GNP, 35 billion dollars.
Aoun’s second priority is secular power sharing, a very tall order in a country where confessional politics has metastasized. He is, however, the only voice for promoting secularism as a means to national unity. At some point in the foreseeable future, the Christians, with Aoun’s leadership, may find their way to dialogue with other communities about separation of religion and state. This separation should occur in a Middle Eastern context that retains religion as a fundamental institution of society.

There is a wide gap between the popular demands for reform and the response of the politicians. The people have gone to great lengths in the recent rebellion to pass on three basic messages to the politicians. The first message calls for healing, telling the truth and reconciliation, especially among the leaders. The second message calls for national unity; reconciliation without unity is impossible. The third message calls for empowering the state by the withdrawal of foreign occupation and paramilitary forces.

What is new is the emerging power of the people, Hezbollah’s national and regional influence, and a strong Christian secular leader. What is constant is the sectarian political balance, a blessing for temporary stability but a curse for future innovation.

The final out come of the elections is leading to a divided government with conflicting forces and visions . The election process and outcome have not reflected careful listening from the politicians to the demands of the people. Still Lebanon is a step ahead because the people have tasted the power of solidarity. The new parliament, regardless of its configuration, will have to meet the challenge to reconciliate, to unite and to reform,


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