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Lebanese Elections: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Commentary, 11 June 2009
Middle East and North Africa
The Lebanese elections were carried out peacefully, demonstrating progress in the democratic process, but a successful day of polling cannot completely cover remaining tensions between 'March 14' and 'March 8'.

The Lebanese elections on 7 June 2009 were carried out peacefully, demonstrating progress in the democratic process, but a successful day of polling cannot completely cover remaining tensions between 'March 14' and 'March 8'.

 

By Al Harris for RUSI.org

The pre-election gossip in the Lebanese beautician’s salon had a peculiarly Beiruti feel. The talk was of the number of customers requesting orange or blue nail polish to match their political persuasion. Much as nail varnish can be changed regularly on a whim, so too in Lebanon superficial political change is possible. But sadly it is hard to escape the conclusion that on the political scene at least, the more things change, the more they really do stay the same. The 7 June Lebanese elections have naturally attracted significant attention. For many they represented a proxy contest between the US-allied ‘March 14’ (a coalition of anti-Syrian political parties) and the pro-Iranian opposition of ‘March 8’. With the US Vice President and Secretary of State’s pre-election comments underscoring the economic consequences of a March 8 Alliance victory and President Obama stressing his support for the Lebanese Christian Maronite community in his Cairo speech, the world’s attention was, albeit briefly, focused on Lebanon. Dire predictions of a ‘victory’ for the ‘March 8’ were counter-balanced by sensible reporting stressing that fears of a Hamas-style electoral coup by Hezbollah and its allies were alarmist. Lebanon’s confessional dynamics mean that whoever won would have a slim majority and need to work to work with opposition partners to govern.

‘Back to point zero’

Therein lies the problem. Lebanon’s election may have passed off unexpectedly peacefully with ‘March 14’ securing 71 of the parliament’s 128 seats, but as the posters come down and the work of forming a government begins, it is clear that the governance crisis that paralysed Lebanon’s institutions in the past will persist. Hezbollah claims that its right to bear arms to resist Israel is inalienable. If need be, as witnessed in May 2008, their fighters will take to the streets to reiterate this. Politically, this will mean that Hezbollah will seek to secure a veto on government decisions in order to protect its arsenal. The inclusive national dialogue process designed to discuss the fundamental question of Lebanon’s national security strategy predictably achieved nothing. Post-elections, Hezbollah has once again reiterated that its weapons are not up for discussion. The party’s pre-election offer to put their weapons to a popular referendum has not been repeated in the face of their electoral defeat. Whilst Hezbollah’s acceptance of the result is a positive sign, this acceptance comes with the caveat that Hezbollah differentiates between a parliamentary and a popular majority. Hezbollah maintains that it is the guardian of the will of the people, regardless of the unhelpful post-election parliamentary arithmetic. So the weapons of the Resistance will stay off the agenda. Ironically, the tool intended to defend Lebanon from external threat will continue to be the source of crippling internal instability. ‘March 14’ has signaled that it will be unable to govern if ‘March 8’ insists on retaining the right to veto government decisions. As the Deputy Speaker of the Lebanese parliament stated, this brings Lebanon ‘back to point zero’.

Voting-day achievements mask political paralysis

It is important to remember the progress that was achieved during these elections. The elections were held for the first time on one day under the commendable stewardship of the Interior Minister Ziad Baroud. Violence was avoided and the Lebanese security forces confirmed their vital role in promoting national cohesion. Voter turn out was up from 45.8 per cent in 2005 to 52.3 per cent this year. Syrian interference in Lebanon’s democratic process appeared almost entirely absent. But what these facts cannot hide is that Lebanon in the immediate post-election period is still deeply divided and politically paralysed. This, and the self-interest of Lebanon’s political elite, will continue to ensure that Lebanon is unable to truly engage in a reform agenda. It is to be hoped that Lebanon’s nascent electoral reforms continue in the face of Lebanese political self-interest and address the country’s democratic deficit in the build up to Lebanon’s municipal elections in 2010. But as eyes turn to the Iranian elections in two days and the question of Hezbollah’s right to resist Israel endures, it is hard to escape the conclusion that as ever the answer to Lebanon’s travails is not solely in Lebanese hands. Plus ça change.

Based in Beirut, Alistair Harris comments regularly on Lebanese and regional affairs for RUSI.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

Author

Alistair Harris OBE
Associate Fellow

Alistair Harris OBE is a former diplomat and UN staff member.

He is an Associate Fellow at RUSI and at the South African... read more

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