Saturday, June 13, 2009

What Really Happened in the Lebanese Elections?

By ESAM AL-AMIN for South Lebanon Blog

Since the Lebanese parliamentary elections on June 7, the mainstream media have declared that the results of the elections clearly show that Hizbollah and its coalition partners have suffered a “crushing defeat.” Some, led by the New York Times and cable news outlets, went even further, suggesting that the Cairo address by President Barack Obama was what made the difference, tilting the elections in favor of the pro-Western governing coalition.

This is pure fantasy, and reveals a complete misunderstanding of the nature of Lebanese politics and an ignorance of the realities on the ground.

Let us first get some facts straight. In the previous parliament, Hizbollah and its coalition partners held 58 seats to the 70 seats of the governing coalition in the 128-seat parliament. The governing coalition led by Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former Sunni prime minister and billionaire Rafik Hariri, consists of mainly parties and groups which are considered friendly to the West and pro-Western Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia. This coalition also includes the traditional Christian Maronite parties supported by the Maronite church, such as the Phalanges and the Lebanese forces. On the other hand, the opposition coalition is led by the mainly Shiite parties, Hizbollah and Amal, in alliance with a main Maronite party, the Free Patriotic Movement led by former General Michel Aoun. In the regional rivalry between the U.S., Israel, and other “moderate”Arab governments on one hand, and Iran, Syria and pro-resistance movements on the other, this opposition coalition clearly supports the latter.

One of the main contentious issues in the previous parliament was the insistence of the pro-Western coalition in demanding the disarming of the resistance movement Hizbollah, ever since Israel failed to dismantle the group’s infrastructure in the 2006 summer war. So the pro-Western groups have been trying to achieve politically what Israel failed to do militarily. The pressure applied by the U.S. during the Bush administration to achieve this very goal had been relentless, triggering a confrontation that lasted over a year and culminated in the recent elections.

Electoral politics in Lebanon is at odds with democratic principles because they are based on sectarian politics. Every major religious group is allotted a certain number of seats in Parliament, based not on population but on a previous agreement reached in 1989 to end 15 years of civil war. For instance, in the current election, the Shiites and the Sunnis had about 873,000 and 842,000 registered voters, respectively, but each group was given 27 seats. On the other hand the Maronite Christians and the Druze had 697,000 and 186,000 registered voters, yet were allotted 34 and 8 seats respectively, far greater than their numbers would entitle them. In addition, more than 120,000 Lebanese ex-patriots were paid, mainly by the Hariri clan, to fly back to Lebanon and vote. It’s estimated that more than three-quarters of them voted for the governing coalition.

With this background, how did the Lebanese actually vote?

With 52 per cent of about 3 million registered voters actually voting, the opposition led by Hizbollah’s coalition received 55 per cent of the vote (840,000) but only 45 per cent of the seats (57). Hizbollah itself fielded only 11 candidates in deference to its coalition partners, the same number it had in the previous parliament. All of them won their seats overwhelmingly. On the other hand, the governing coalition received 45 per cent of the vote (692,000) and 55per cent of the seats. In essence, the governing coalition won 68 seats, while independents won 3 seats, but later joined the governing coalition for a total of 71 seats.

In other words, the make-up of the current parliament changed only by one seat from the previous one, and that merely only happened after the independents were enticed to join the governing coalition. Moreover, the real surprise was that Gen. Aoun’s party, the coalition partner of Hizbollah, received, according to the results announced by the Lebanese interior ministry, 52 per cent of the Christian vote, though picking up fewer seats than his Christian rivals. Only in a fantasy world would such numbers be declared “a clear repudiation of Hizbollah’s coalition program,” as the clearly biased mainstream media, particularly the NYT’s Thomas Friedman ,would have you believe.

So the real story of the elections is that the will of the Lebanese people did not carry the day and the principle of majority rule was not respected. The Hizbollah-led coalition had indeed won more votes than the pro-Western coalition by a hefty 10 per cent. When President Obama received 53 per cent of the popular vote to John McCain’s 47 per cent last November, it was declared by the media and political pundits as a crushing defeat for the Republicans and a mandate for real change.

Lebanese politics is unpredictable. Today’s ally could be tomorrow’s nemesis. For instance, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt was for many years Syria’s ally in Lebanon but turned against them a few years ago because of the political shift in the country. However, he recently started sending friendly overtures to the opposition. Though unlikely in the current political environment, but with the control of 8 seats, if he were to switch sides, then the make-up of parliament would become 65-63 in favor of the opposition.

The real question now is whether the new government, having a majority in parliament, will press for disarming Hizbollah in order to satisfy their patrons. If such a policy were to be carried out, it would immediately create a crisis and the majority of the Lebanese as shown on election day will be in the streets protesting and demanding that the real will they exhibited on election day be respected.

Esam Al-Amin can be reached at: