Win for the West

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

SAAD HARIRI, WHO led the March 14 coalition to victory. He wants to be the Prime Minister.-GRACE KASSAB/AP

SAAD HARIRI, WHO led the March 14 coalition to victory. He wants to be the Prime Minister.-GRACE KASSAB/AP

THE victory of the pro-United States March 14 alliance, a coalition of anti-Syrian political parties led by Saad Hariri, in the closely contested Lebanese parliamentary elections of June 7 has come as a relief to the pro-Western states in the West Asian region. U.S. President Barack Obama was among the first heads of state to congratulate the people of Lebanon on the choice they made. Some observers had predicted a victory for the March 8 coalition led by Hizbollah as the countdown to the elections began, raising perceptible fear in many capital cities.

Last-ditch efforts by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France seemed to have tilted the scales in favour of the March 14 alliance. The coalition derives its name from the day on which a massive demonstration was held in Beirut in 2005 against Syrian influence in Lebanon, a month after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. The West had portrayed the elections as a proxy fight with Iran for influence over Lebanon. The U.S. had unilaterally designated Hizbollah, which represents the downtrodden Shia populace, as a terrorist organisation.

It was obvious that the Obama administration gave a great deal of importance to the electoral outcome. Washington had despatched Vice-President Joe Biden to Lebanon in the last week of May. It was for the first time in 25 years that a U.S. Vice-President visited Lebanon. Biden tried disingenuously to suggest that his visit was not meant to bolster the fortunes of pro-Western parties. At the same time, he did not shy away from saying that future American assistance to the country would depend on the composition of the new government.

Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had warned the people of Lebanon that if they made the wrong choice, American financial and military support might not be forthcoming. Jeffery Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, was even more explicit. He told the London-based Al Hayat newspaper that the Lebanese are smart enough to know that there will be an effect if the Hizbollah is elected to power.

The Lebanese people were fully aware that soon after Hamas won the elections in Palestine, Washington reacted by cutting off financial aid, and gave the green signal to Israel to launch an attack. In the run-up to the elections, the German news magazine Der Spiegel wrote a highly provocative article alleging that Hizbollah was involved in the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the father of Saad Hariri.

The Hizbollah-led alliance has graciously conceded defeat. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic Hizbollah leader, said in a television address that he accepted the results in a sporting spirit. Nasrallah expressed his sincere hope that the next government will continue on the path of building a sovereign, independent and stable Lebanon.

Official results showed that the March 14 coalition won 71 seats in the 128-seat Parliament. March 8 got 57 seats.

Hizbollahs Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement led by Gen. Michel Aoun, did not fare as well as many observers had expected. Last-minute political machinations seem to have had an impact on Aouns electoral fortunes.

The head of the Maronite Catholic Church, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, issued an appeal to the Christian community to vote for the March 14 coalition. He said that voting for the opposition March 8 would weaken Lebanons culture and Arab identity. This was a clear reference to Hizbollahs main international ally, Iran, and the Persian culture it embodies.

Under Lebanons complicated electoral laws, which are dictated by its sectarian political system, the parliamentary seats are equally divided between Muslims and Christians. They are further divided between the 18 officially recognised religious sects, which include Sunnis, Shias, Alawites, Maronite Christians, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Christians and the Druze, which is an off-shoot of Islam.

Until the 1940s, the Muslim and Christian populations were almost evenly divided. Today, the Christian population is fast declining and constitute less than 30 per cent, according to many experts.

Most of the Lebanese diaspora consists of Christians. Because of sectarian sensitivities, no official census has been conducted since 1932. The French colonialists, while creating the state of Lebanon, had envisaged it as a Christian state. Until the 1960s, right-wing Christian parties had monopolised power in the country.

Interestingly, thousands of Lebanese, mainly Christians, made a brief visit to the country to exercise their ballots. According to reports in the Lebanese media, $20 million was spent on their air tickets. The question being asked is who paid the airfares. The voter turnout was above 54 per cent, the highest since the end of the 1975-1991 civil war.

Around 10 per cent of the population of Lebanon is said to consist of Palestinians, who came to the country as refugees after Israel took over their lands. The majority of them continue to live in squalid conditions in refugee camps. The overwhelming majority of the Palestinians, despite being born in Lebanon, have been denied citizenship rights.

The election results, according to most analysts, reflected the sectarian fault lines in Lebanese politics. The Sunni, Christian and Druze populations mainly cast their votes with the winning coalition. According to A l -Safir, a newspaper with Hizbollah links, the elections have once again created a parliament of national divisions. The independent newspaper Al Watan said that in the most important elections in Lebanese history, politically tainted money had the last word. Both the winners and the losers have already started talking about the creation of a government of national unity. Walid Jumblatt, Druze leader, despite his well-known animosity towards Hizbollah, has called for a government of national unity.

Saad Hariri wants to be the new Prime Minister but the Americans have indicated that they would prefer former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora for the job. A dark horse for the Prime Ministers post is the newly elected Member of Parliament from Tripoli, Najib Mikati. He is said to be more acceptable to Hizbollah. Hizbollah has announced that it would never allow Hariri, who is considered to be too close to the West and Saudi Arabia, to become Prime Minister.

President Michel Sleiman has urged all the parties to get together and form a coalition government at the earliest. Lebanons fractious politics makes it imperative for all the parties to be represented in government. For instance, the Shias, who are now the single largest majority in the country, are mainly supporters of the two main Shia parties, Hizbollah and Amal. The Speakers post, by law, has to go to a Shia MP.

Senior Hizbollah officials were quick to warn the victorious March 14 coalition that it should not question its role as a party of resistance against Israel. There is also the issue of veto power. At a meeting brokered by Qatar, Syria and Saudi Arabia in Doha last year to end the long-running political stalemate in the country, the ruling coalition had agreed to give the power to veto Cabinet decisions to the opposition.

The opposition, led by Hizbollah, is also demanding one-third of the seats in the new Cabinet, so as to retain the veto power. The March 14 coalition has already expressed its reluctance to cede the veto power, insisting that it has now got the peoples mandate to govern on its own. The general prediction is that it will take at least a couple of weeks for a government of national unity to be in place.

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