Legislative elections in Lebanon

Press review – Week from June 8 to 12, 2009

On Sunday June 7th, Lebanon voted for the legislative elections in a context of heightened regional tensions particularly since summer of 2006, in a country that had seen a reshaping of the Lebanese political landscape with the emergence of movements in response to the attack that killed Rafik Hariri in 2005 and the Syrian presence on Lebanese soil. The rise of Hezbollah, especially since 2006, gave this election a dimension that goes beyond its strictly national framework. 3, 2 million Lebanese were expected to vote. In Lebanon, every religious community is given a number of seats in 26 constituencies in terms of its demographic weight.

Awaited results

The pro-Western and « anti-Syrian » coalition headed by Saad Hariri won 71 seats out of 120 while the « pro-Syrian » opposition led by Hezbollah and joined by the supporters of General Aoun won 57 seats, reports Le Figaro. Voters’ participation rose to 55% (it was 45% in 2005). The stakes of this election are huge. Lebanese had to choose between a Lebanon closer to Syria and Iran which would have lost Western support and a Lebanon remaining an ally of the West and the pro-Western Arab neighbors, preserving Lebanon from the Syrian influence. The vote of the Sunni and the Shiite communities was not surprising while Christians’ has been crucial, since Christian communities are deeply divided, analysis Le Figaro. It is in areas where they hold the majority that the election’s outcome has been decisive. In the camp of the March 14th Movement, Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and the Phalange party of Amine Gemayel had done everything to persuade voters to remain faithful to the ideals of the movement that ended the Syrian occupation in spring 2005 whereas General Aoun is now allied to Hezbollah in the March 8th Movement.
Reactions and analysis

Western Relief

« The high turnout and the candidates, many of whom have experienced violence that marred Lebanon, are the strongest indications of the Lebanese desire for security and prosperity, » said Mr. Obama after the first estimates.

The European Union has welcomed the victory of the « anti-Syrian » camp to which Europeans gave their support, said Le Figaro. The possibility of a victory for Hezbollah made some fear a turning point in the relations between Lebanon and the West and between Lebanon and its Sunni Arab neighbors, endangering regional balances.

For the New York Times, it should be noted that for once, being obviously supported by the United States has not led to a defeat in the Middle East. This change in the vision of the United States could have an impact on the upcoming elections in Iran, according to the American daily. It will be more complicated for Hezbollah, Syria and Iran to demonize the United States now that President Obama promotes dialogue rather than confrontation. This analysis is confirmed by Osama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, for whom « it is not relevant anymore for extremists to play the card of anti-Americanism. » In addition, Israel will find more difficult in the future to capitalize on the fear of a domination of Hezbollah on Lebanon. This shift may push the Israeli administration to address the Palestinian matter.

The importance of the Christian vote that has decided between the two camps has been analyzed by the New York Times as well. It seems that the rejection of the Syrian and Iranian influence has made Christians chose the March 14 Movement as well as the fear of being isolated like Gaza and set aside by the West.

For the Times, the victory of the March 14 Movement could promote the relations between the United States and Syria, the latter feeling now isolated.

In Lebanon

L’Orient le Jour quotes the terms of the March 14 Movement, which believes that « these elections have shown, through the results and the participation rate, a real referendum on the option of the sovereign, free and independent State”. The Lebanese daily also quotes the leader of the Kataeb party, Amine Gemayel, who believes that these elections are “a plebiscite for the cause of Lebanon, the sacred foundations for which the party fought for 70 years” and that “the Lebanese people is supporting the exclusive legality of weapons detention of the State, so that the army and security forces alone can bear arms on the whole Lebanese territory. »

For his part, the Assembly president, Nabih Berry, urged the Lebanese « to remain deaf to the statements of the Israeli politicians » in L’Orient le jour, since « these statements first aim at creating problems among the Lebanese, letting believe that the victory of a Lebanese party serves the interests of Israel. »

Libnanews comments on the speech of Hassan Nasrallah in the wake of the defeat of the coalition led by Hezbollah. The Shiite leader first congratulated the Lebanese people for their participation in the election, as well as the police and the army for allowing a secure environment during the parliamentary election of June 7th. However, Nasrallah has denounced a « world war » launched against him and General Aoun in particular by the United States and Saudi Arabia.

In an interview with La Libre Belgique, Saad Hariri welcomed the willingness of the Lebanese population to preserve the sovereignty of the country and even if he praised the support of the new U.S. administration, the Lebanese leader believes that the March 14 Movement did not win thanks to that support. Moreover, Saad Hariri believes that the relations with the opposition can only improve now since the elections were held under the electoral law that Hezbollah wanted.

In the Middle East

Al Jazeera’s analysts have also identified the essential elements of the election results: the votes of Christians and the up-coming talks for a future coalition. For the pan-Arab media, the loser of the election is General Aoun, who joined the March 8 coalition. The Christian vote was less fragmented than expected and if Aoun has lost many Christian votes, he won Muslim votes. For Al Jazeera, the approximation of Aoun with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran would have been fatal to the party. Finally, President Michel Sleiman would increase his influence thanks to his mediation role in the formation of a next government coalition.

Al-Ahram weekly underlines the massive purchase of votes of the Lebanese living abroad by political parties. Indeed, for the first time, the Lebanese living abroad but having a Lebanese passport could vote if they went on the national territory. The Egyptian weekly reported the figure of 3,000 additional passengers per day at Beirut airport during the days preceding the election. Al-Ahram weekly reports the high mobilization of the population and the media for these elections, taking the example of the pro-opposition Lebanese dailyAl-Akhbar, whose headline was: « last battle between March 8 and March 14.”

The Jordan Times draws « lessons » from these elections. For the Jordanian daily, the election outcome does not matter that much because Lebanon operates on a system of consensus and balances. Then, the daily stresses that with Turkey, Lebanon is the only State with a Muslim majority in the Middle East able to carry out credible elections whose results were not predictable. However, the Jordan Times explains the relative importance of these elections’ results, stressing that, as in the rest of the Middle-East, decisions are not taken in parliament but are negotiated « elsewhere. » Moreover, these elections are considered by the journalist as a victory of credibility not of any ideology since the March 14 Movement has not clearly detailed the values he stood for, except its opposition to Hezbollah. In addition, these elections would embody the victory of clans on policy since the victory of the March 14 Movement is mainly due to a Sunni core structure homogeneous in its vote. The daily recalls the complexity of a vote depending on local, regional, global and cosmic features since local identities, Arab regional actors; non-Arab regional actors and religious institutions are all influencing Lebanese politics. For the Jordanian daily, March 14 Movement also won because it presented itself as an « antidote » to violence. Finally, the Jordan Times analyzes the failure of Aoun against a Sunni March 14 Movement and a Shiite Hezbollah as the victory of anchoring forces as opposed to a personal initiative like Aoun’s.
Haaretz stresses that the Israeli leaders have welcomed the victory of the pro-Western coalition with a “prudent” optimism. On Monday, President Peres said: « The Lebanese election results do not change the fact that Hezbollah remains a State within the State.” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he expected to see further developments in the Lebanese politics before giving the new Israeli position.

“Post-election” challenges

As a consequence of the specificity of the Lebanese system, the issue of the next government is far from being settled, says Le Figaro. Indeed, Hezbollah and its ally Amal have the monopoly of the Shiite representation and therefore called for their participation in the executive branch, which implies a right of veto in a government of national unity. Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, considers himself as the leader of the Christian community, his parliamentary bloc counting about twenty members. “Beyond the victory of the March 14 movement, we are politically back to the starting point », says Fadia Kiwan. Despite the absence of violence during an election process praised by international observers, many fear an escalation of tensions with the introduction of a new government.

Hurriyet also wonders about the future constitution of the government and the capacity of a national union to prevent the country from sinking once again into instability. The Turkish daily said that if Hezbollah did not win the election, it remains a political force and the largest armed force in the country.

In L’Orient le jour, Emile Khoury recalls the challenges that Lebanon has to face now. Indeed, the establishment of a coalition is wanted by Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt and Hassan Nasrallah. However, the latter claims a third of blocking, what the 14 March Movement refuses for the moment. Furthermore, the issue of Hezbollah’s armament is at stake. The final ministerial declaration on the subject had proclaimed « the right of Lebanon, its people, its army and its resistance to release and recover the Shebaa Farms, the heights of Kfarchouba, the Lebanese village of Ghajar. And the right to defend Lebanon against any aggression and to protect its waters, by all legitimate means available « while some ministers had asked that the precision “under the sole auspices of the State » would be added.

Concerning the setting of the future government, Saad Hariri said in an interview to La Libre Belgique that he will decide on his application for prime minister after discussions within the Movement of March 14. Finally, he considers as « historic » the establishment of relations between Syria and Lebanon and assures that the victory of the « pro-Western » clan will not have any negative impact on these relations if Syria is still ready to cooperate and to accept the results.