It is now clear that the pro-Western March 14 alliance has won an unexpected victory in parliamentary elections in Lebanon, and senior sources in the Hizbullah-led March 8 bloc have conceded defeat in statements to Western reporters.
Contrary to most forecasts, the vote appears to have produced a legislature very similar in representation to the one that preceded it.
March 14 is thought to have won 69 or 70 seats in the 128-member parliament. If one adds the one or two independent, pro-March 14 MPs to the total, the movement now controls around 71 seats. In the outgoing parliament, they controlled 70.
What were the factors that led to March 8/Hizbullah being upset, and what implications do the results have for stability in Lebanon and for Israel?
Most importantly, the results represent a defeat for the party of former general Michel Aoun. Aoun’s Free Democratic Party is the Christian element in the Hizbullah-led March 8 bloc. Aoun, who once led an anti-Syrian rebellion, is now a firm member of the pro-Syrian alliance in Lebanon.
The focus in these elections was the Christian community, because the allegiances of the Druse, Sunni and Shi’ite Lebanese were clear and predictable. The Sunnis and Druse overwhelmingly backed the pro-Western March 14, while the Shi’ites – their loyalties divided between Hizbullah and the pro-Syrian Amal movement, were almost exclusively aligned with March 8. As a result, around 100 of the 128 seats in parliament were effectively allocated in advance.
The Christians, however, were divided. Aoun expected that his personal standing and his strong showing in 2005 would allow his party to sweep the board in Christian areas. The pro-March 14 Christians – the Lebanese Forces Party of Dr. Samir Geagea and the Phalange – were widely disregarded.
Though the emergence of a number of “independent” Christian candidates in the weeks prior to the elections had led to rumors of a possible upset, it appears that the Christians affiliated with March 14 performed surprisingly well, though without entirely eclipsing Aoun.
March 14 swept the board in the symbolically important Beirut 1 District, which contains five seats. March 14 also won the seats of Batroun (where a Lebanese Forces candidate unseated Michel Aoun’s son-in-law) Koura, Bsharreh and Tripoli.
Why did so many Christian Lebanese turn against Aoun and March 8?
Many Lebanese analysts consider that fears in the community over the consequences of a drift further toward the Iranian and Syrian regional bloc played an important part. In this regard, the events of May 2008, when Hizbullah sent its forces onto the streets of Beirut, were seen as playing a role.
A recent speech by Hassan Nasrallah, in which he described those May events as a “glorious day” for the “resistance” and warned March 14 against any future interference with Hizbullah’s independent military infrastructure, may well have helped to concentrate Christian minds regarding the danger represented by Hizbullah.
Some have also suggested that the memory of the destructive 2006 war with Israel, sparked by a Hizbullah kidnapping of IDF soldiers and shelling of Israeli communities in the North, also played its part.
The election results mean that March 14 will be the dominant factor in the governing coalition which will now be formed. However, the opposition will also be represented in the new government. Negotiations over the make-up and nature of the coalition are likely to be protracted.
Lebanese analysts are pointing to the issue of the opposition’s demand for a “blocking third” of cabinet seats as a possible source of strife.
The veto was granted to Hizbullah and its allies in the Doha negotiations which followed the May fighting last year. However, March 14 leader Sa’ad Hariri has said that he is not interested in renewing the veto arrangement.
This is likely to prove a central issue in negotiations. Given Hizbullah’s and its allies’ and patrons’ proven capacity for using violence to reinforce their arguments, the potential for further strife remains real.
It is important to remember that while the averting of an electoral victory for the pro-Iranian, pro-Syrian bloc is significant, it has no bearing on the wider issue of Hizbullah’s possession of an independent military capacity, and its consequent ability to pursue an independent foreign and military policy.
Hizbullah would certainly have preferred the March 8 bloc it leads to have performed better. But the movement itself fielded only 11 candidates. Beyond this, it was content to concede the Shi’ite representation to the allied Amal movement.
For Hizbullah and its Iranian patron, the key interest at present is the rebuilding and expansion of its independent military capacity, and the shadow state which has emerged around it.
Hizbullah successfully defended the borders of this shadow state from internal interference in May 2008. Iran invested heavily in repairing it after the war of 2006, and its guns remain pointed at Israel.
So amid the justified relief at the setback suffered by the pro-Iranian bloc in the vote, it should be borne in mind that the results represent a continuation of the problematic preelection reality, rather than any major transformation.