Living with the Outcome: Elections in Lebanon


Jun 5, 2009

By Aram Nerguizian and Ghassan Schbley

This commentary originally appeared on on June 5, 2009.

Lebanon is scheduled to hold elections Sunday [June 7], and the pro-Western political alliance favored by the United States may lose. If it does, the Obama Administration should not consider the result a triumph for Hezbollah, but a challenge. The United States needs to play for the long term in Lebanon with a pragmatic policy that deals with the reality of Hezbollah's political power while continuing to strengthen moderate forces and national institutions.

This parliamentary election is the fifth since Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990. It will test the strength of the two main political blocs: the March 14 Alliance, the current majority bloc which is seen as pro-Western and close to conservative Sunni Arab regimes; and the opposition March 8 Alliance, close to Syria and Iran.

Lebanon being Lebanon, however, it isn't nearly that simple. Both alliances include Muslims (both Sunnis and Shiites), Christians, and other ethnic groups and religious minorities. Lebanon's constitution guarantees its 18 religious communities representation in Parliament. This makes Lebanese politics a game of high-stakes poker which is never winner-take-all and which requires every player to blink in the end. Lebanese parties and institutions must negotiate and compromise with their adversaries, including Hezbollah. All sides are well aware that past conflicts over competing sectarian and communal interests have led to instability, violence, and civil war.

U.S. policymakers have cultivated a close relationship with the leadership of the March 14 movement, named after the March 14, 2005 Beirut mass demonstration to commemorate the one-month anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. March 14 demanded an end to the 30-year Syrian presence in Lebanon. If March 14 wins on Sunday, the United States will have a pro-Western, anti-Iranian partner in Beirut and should encourage the new government to reform and strengthen Lebanese institutions — particularly the presidency and security forces. This domestic reform is as vital to Lebanon's long-term security as is curbing Syrian and Iranian influence.

The Obama Administration might be inclined to consider a victory for the March 8 bloc, named after the March 8, 2005 pro-Syrian mass demonstration in Beirut, as a defeat of moderate voices. But it should not prompt a dramatic shift in U.S. policy; Washington needs to stay the course in Lebanon.

Whoever wins, Washington should avoid characterizing the victory as that of the "good" or "bad" forces. A March 8 victory should not be interpreted solely as a Hezbollah victory. Christian leaders such as General Michel Aoun (in addition to other secular pro-Syrian parties) would constitute the bulk of such a winning coalition. With a lower number of announced candidates, Hezbollah will have fewer seats in this scenario than it did after the 2005 election but will continue to be a key player in Lebanese politics. An opposition victory would bolster some moderate March 8 leaders, which might require the Obama administration to increase its communication with them.

The United States should continue to cooperate with the Lebanese government even if it includes some members of Hezbollah, just as it did in 2005 and 2008 when Hezbollah joined the March 14-led governments. Hezbollah may opt not to demand the new government's key ministries: interior, defense, finance and foreign affairs. It understands that to do so would make Lebanon an international pariah state, and could also make Hezbollah itself accountable in ways that could undermine its power base. However, an electoral victory would allow Hezbollah to resist local and international pressures to disarm.

It is also possible that neither bloc will win decisively. In this case, a new centrist bloc allied to the president could emerge, encompassing all major Lebanese communities and sharing power. History has demonstrated that no single party or limited coalition can rule Lebanon so such an outcome could be desirable both for Lebanon and for the prospects of continued U.S. engagement.

The real test for Lebanon will occur during the process of forming the new government. New alliances may trigger intense political disputes that could spill over into civil disobedience and violence. And whoever forms the next government will have to deal with the disarmament of all non-state actors including Hezbollah, the continuing operation of the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon to investigate political assassinations, and institutional reform — all critical challenges for Lebanon's future.

Aram Nerguizian is a resident scholar with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). Ghassan Schbley is a national security project associate at the RAND Corporation.

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