Lebanon's Tectonic Shift

June 19, 2005

Lebanon's Tectonic Shift

The fourth and final round of Lebanon's election produced a clear mandate for the coalition that emerged after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, with the likelihood of his son becoming the next prime minister.


The fourth and final round of Lebanon's election produced a clear mandate for the coalition that emerged after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, with the likelihood of his son becoming the next prime minister.  However, the results of the third round of Lebanon's parliamentary elections on June 12th marked the return of Michel Aoun to the center of Lebanese politics after 14 years of exile in France and nearly a month after returning to Beirut. He will clearly emerge as a leading figure of the opposition in parliament. Aoun's victory in the third round also marked the consolidation of the Christian community as a more cohesive political force after a lengthy leadership vacuum in which Aoun has surfaced as the principal leader.  The overwhelming gains in Mount Lebanon, the historical center of Lebanon's national identity, particularly increased the political symbolism of Aoun's victory in the third round. 

The first two rounds of Lebanon's parliamentary elections were fairly predictable due to a gerrymandered electoral system that was designed to guarantee and accommodate a Syrian presence which does not reflect current realities. The Hariri bloc won Beirut and the Shiite combination of Hizbullah/Amal swept all seats in southern Lebanon. In the third electoral round of June 12th, parties were competing for nearly half of the parliamentary seats in the religiously intertwined and diverse areas of Mount Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley.  It provided the first
real electoral competition and significant insight into the future of Lebanese politics.  As a part of a strategy to maximize electoral gains, many unholy alliances have been formed between anti-Syrian and previously pro-Syrian parties at the local district level.  Aoun has also participated in this strategy.


However, Aoun's comparative advantage is to have never cooperated or
collaborated directly with the Syrians during their occupation, unlike the majority of Lebanon's current political figures, including Walid Jumblatt, the Hariri bloc, the Shiite groups Hizbullah/Amal and Christians, such as the current President Emile Lahoud.  They operated and benefited on a system based on patronage and clientelism with Syria.  Although Aoun draws support predominantly from Christians, he has also won the backing of many secular, non-Christian Lebanese nationalists who remember his "last stand" against Syrian troops in the final days of Lebanon's civil war.  However, these final days also provide Aoun's opponents with tragic memories of the brutality of Lebanon's civil war.

The June 12th results also marked a setback for Lebanon's anti-Syrian opposition which emerged in late 2004 after the approval of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 and consolidated after Hariri's assassination. The coalition was one of convenience and based solely on Syrian withdrawal. Once withdrawal was completed, the coalition began to unravel as traditional sectarian interests surfaced.  The June 12th results were a personal setback for Walid Jumblatt, who as a central figure of the anti-Syrian opposition sought to consolidate his position as a national leader, and not just as the head of the Druze community.  Although Jumblatt presently continues to exercise significant influence over the Hariri bloc, he has failed to maintain a similar role over the Christian community. Aoun's third-round victory dissolved the distinction between Syrian and anti-Syrian forces and complicates Lebanon's political landscape, particularly for those, such as Jumblatt, who sought to secure their gains after Syrian withdrawal. 

The first major casualty after the elections could be the current President Emile Lahoud, a Christian appointed by Syria whose presidential term was extended at Syria's insistence.  According to Lebanon's constitution, the post of president is reserved for the leader of the Christian community.  The election's final outcome may increase pressure for Lahoud's resignation.  However, the precarious world of Lebanese politics may produce a compromise that allows him to finish his term. 

The new parliament will clearly contain the same names and faces which  dominated Lebanon's political landscape during and after the civil war.  However, altering the status quo must remain a priority and not business as usual.  Key challenges include implementing electoral reform to reflect contemporary realities, combating corruption, instituting greater transparency and accountability, reducing sectarianism, overhauling the economy, restructuring the massive national debt, and the difficult task of disarming militias, principally Hizbollah, and integrating them into the Lebanese army.  Although overwhelming, these challenges are not insurmountable provided that differences continue to be resolved through dialogue and compromise with the ballot box, not bullets as the main instrument of political legitimacy.  The alternative is a return to the past in which a fragile political balance of power was broken and civil war ensued.

June 19th, 2005

Marco Vicenzino is Executive Director of the Global Strategy Project in Washington, DC, and served as the Deputy Executive Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US (IISS-US).  E-mail: [email protected]

Updated 6/19/05