At the Crossroad of Peace and Stability
Since the last elections, which took place after the withdrawal of Syria's troops in 2005, the political system has been under constant domestic and international strain. In November 2007, when the term of the 11th President of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, ended, the country was nearly on the brink of a civil-war again. Under mediation of the Amir of Qatar, the main political groups finally reached an agreement in Doha in May 2008 forming a new cross-party government.
Lebanon has been so far run by a national unity government, in which the pro-western March 14 faction has the upper hand. Its major opponent is the coalition March 8, which includes the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shi'ite group Hezbollah.
Tight race between two blocs
The race between the two rivalling blocs March 14 and March 8 is tight. With 128 seats needed to be filled, 702 candidates from 26 districts registered until the deadline at the beginning of April – the highest number of nominees ever in Lebanese history.
March 14, named after the date of the Cedar Revolution against 30 years of Syrian military occupation in Lebanon, comprises a strong coalition of various parties such as the Lebanese Future Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party, and Lebanese Forces.
Most prominently, the Lebanese Future Movement is lead by Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated former prime minister of Lebanon. Hariri is listed by Forbes as one of the wealthiest people in the world, running the Saudi Oger construction conglomerate, being board member of the Saudi Investment Bank, and now heading Lebanon's largest Sunni Muslim political party.
Struggling with internal compromises
Although united since the 2005 parliamentary election to end Damascus interference in Lebanese affairs, March 14 struggles with gaining internal compromises. Hariri's greatest opponents are Walid Jumblatt of the left-wing Progressive Socialist Party and Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces. Jumblatt is known for shifting his political allegiances in order to protect the long-term interests of the Druze Muslims. Equally, Geagea is defending the needs of the Lebanese Christian community against dangers and threats.
However, March 14 launched a joint 14 point plan for the elections putting the protection of Lebanon from Israeli attacks and the retrieval of Shebaa Farms through the full execution of the UN Resolution 1701 in the first place. The alliance also demands a full disarmament of all groups, a termination of the disagreement with Syria, and a full commitment to refuse the resettlement of Palestinians in Lebanon.
Moreover, the bloc highlights the need of socio-economical reforms, but also touches on gender and environmental issues.
Main opposition in the Lebanese Parliament
Founded after a mass political rally by Hezbollah in rejection to disarmament and to express gratitude to Syria, the March 8 alliance has been, to this point, the main opposition in the Lebanese Parliament. The alliance consists, besides Hezbollah, of the Free Patriotic Movement, the Amal Movement, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.
Head of the Free Patriotic Movement is Michel Aoun, a former commander leading the Christian forces in the final years of Lebanon's civil war. The Christian Maronite, who has previously been a firm advocate for the disarmament of Hezbollah's militia in line with the US- and French UN Security Council Resolution 1559, surprised political fellows when he announced cooperation with the March 8 movement.
Analysts suspect the reason lay in the strategic step of Aoun to overcome his political isolation after coming back to Lebanon, and his aim to get into a better position through Hezbollah instead of fighting within March 14.
The Amal Movement, short for Lebanese Resistance Detachments (Afwaj al-Muqawamah al-Lubnaniyyah) as well as meaning "hope" in Arabic, exists as a military wing and Islamic political organization since 1975. Nabih Berri chairs the party being also the Speaker of the Parliament of Lebanon. In 2008 Berri shut down the Parliament postponing its sessions, which was seen as a manoeuvre to hinder the election of an anti-Syrian President by the March 14 Alliance.
Hezbollah in the Lebanese government
Hezbollah, literally the "party of God", regards itself as the legitimate resistance movement in Lebanon against Israel. The Shi'a Islamic paramilitary organisation is still listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. In Doha, Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of the armed movement, managed to gain one-third of the government ministry posts strengthening Hezbollah's position within the Lebanese power structures. Having Hezbollah in the Lebanese government, and thereby legitimizing its role, have caused serious concerns in Israel.
In its electoral program Hezbollah declares that Lebanon should no longer be seen as an arena, and obliges all to deal with them with the necessary seriousness and responsibility. However, Nasrallah recently announced that only if the current Hezbollah-led opposition wins the elections, it will form a national unity government with all parties; otherwise it will refuse any participation.
Hezbollah's program of reform
Arguing against "Zionist aggression" and the attempt of the U.S. to take exert influence over the region, Hezbollah furthermore calls in its election charter for political, socio-economical and financial reforms. It therefore demands, for instance, the reintroduction of a Ministry of Planning submitting ten or five-year plans for the various sectors. Additionally, the group stresses the need of a decentralized administration, a reform of the judicial system and the education sector.
The movement also insists on a review of certain laws on publications and media. Similarly, the party emphasizes that the privacy of citizens has to be protected through banning indiscriminate wire-tapping of their telephone calls – all measures which have been used to uncover Hezbollah's activities.
After the elections
Many scenarios for the aftermath of the elections are possible. March 8 has been playing an influential role in the government and some analysts forecast it could emerge victorious in the polls. Other political observers expect that the new government will be broadly similar in shape to the present legislature, although the balance might tip slightly.
Lastly, Lebanon could end up with a unity government of March 8 and March 14, where Hizbollah not only holds the one-third blocking veto power of Doha, but even half of the posts in the Cabinet. Whether a crisis will immediately take hold after the elections is not yet definite, but given past experiences it is not completely unlikely.
Generally, it appears as if Lebanese political parties are not divided by strong programmatic differences. The main diverging issues remaining are questions of disarmament and Lebanon's national defense strategy, as well as details concerning the authorities of the Special Tribunal of Lebanon. As a matter of fact, religious actors of all confessions are significantly involved in political debates. In this regard, confessional allegiance can be seen as the most decisive feature beyond pure power considerations.
Given that Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman has been chosen in Doha last year to please all parties, it is predicted that the future government will reelect in him in his office, this time for a six-year non-renewable term. In the past, he has been successfully adept at reading power shifts, anticipating popular sentiment and balancing competing interests.
Time for change?
As a topic of critique among the public continues the frustration that within all parties the old elites from the civil-war era will stay in power without any fresh spirit and vision for the country. This lack of enthusiasm comes with the opinion that nothing will change, mixed with the perception that there is no single political figure committed to the Lebanese people only. Also the unknown faces in the election race, though there only a few, are very much suspected just to rule in favour of the their own family circles' wealth.
Consequently, the political parties are seeking to mobilize voters to increase the turnout for the elections. Many Lebanese expatriates are being flown home with tickets paid by the parties to vote in contested districts. As the New York Times recently documented, especially in competitive regions votes are being bought with cash or other rewarding services.
In any case, the upcoming elections will be a challenging test for Lebanon. The period leading to the ballot votes and the results of the elections will reveal the stability the parliamentary republic. If the process ends in a peaceful outcome, it will be a milestone in the strengthening of Lebanon's democratic institutions.
In the streets of Beirut these days, it can be inevitably sensed that the country's future, and the region's stability, are once again at a crossroads. Lebanon has already experienced a winding political journey of freedom and independence. These elections will show how much longer the way is for Lebanon to finally reach consolidated peace.
© Martin Wählisch 2009
Martin Wählisch is Senior Researcher at the Center for Peace Mediation, Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance in Berlin.