High stakes in Lebanon's election

A win for Hezbollah and its allies Sunday would tip the region’s balance of power toward Iran.

Bilal Hussein/AP/FILE
A yellow election banner in Dahiyeh – Beiruit's southern suburbs – reads in part: 'Lebanon: homeland of justice for all.'

In Beirut's southern suburbs, there is a quiet confidence in the outcome of Lebanon's highly charged parliamentary elections on June 7.

Here, Hezbollah reigns. Beneath a spiderweb of illegal electricity cables, thoroughfares are lined with solemn portraits of "martyrs" – resistance fighters killed in battle against Israeli troops in south Lebanon. Huge posters cover the sides of some apartment buildings, showing stern-faced Iranian clerical leaders or the beaming visage of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic and revered leader of Hezbollah.

If the polls go as many believe they could, the militant Shiite group may soon extend its dominance to Lebanon as a whole, shifting the balance of power in the Middle East toward Syria and Iran – and away from the West's allies.

It has been a remarkable journey for Hezbollah. From a small band of Iran-directed religious zealots, the group has morphed over the years. Though still backed by Iran, Hezbollah is today a sophisticated, multifaceted organization that offers a host of social services to its grass-roots constituents and fields possibly the most effective guerrilla army in the world.

Critics call it a state within a state. But on June 8, the Hezbollah-dominated opposition could find itself holding the reins of power in the Lebanese state. That would put the ruling March 14 coalition – a pro-West alliance of Sunni, Druze, and Christian parties – on the defensive.

"If March 14 wins, we will return to the current balance ... constitutional power in our hands and the power of weapons in their [Hezbollah's] hands," says a senior figure in the Future Movement, the leading Sunni political body, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If they win, then there will be a joint Syro-Iranian venture on the Mediterranean."

The political contours of the Middle East today are shaped by a new cold war pitting Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas against the so-called moderate camp, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United States, and even Israel – all of whom worry about Tehran's rising influence. The fault line in this cold war runs through Lebanon, ensuring that the elections will reverberate far beyond Beirut.

Two-thirds the size of Connecticut and home to 4 million people, Lebanon plays a disproportionately influential role in Middle East affairs. Its history and politics have been held hostage by its geographical location, wedged between the Mediterranean and old enemies Israel and Syria, and by its pluralistic society, a patchwork of competing sects, tribes, and clans whose leaders often pursue external patronage to gain leverage against domestic rivals.

A deep cultural gulf

A microcosm of the Middle East, Lebanon has long played host to most woes plaguing the region: the Arab-Israeli conflict, Sunni-Shiite tensions, Al Qaeda-style militancy, extremist austerity, and democratic openness.

Two men – Hamzi, a fighter with Hezbollah, and Jean Fares, an engineering student and a Christian – stand on opposite sides of the Middle East fault line and typify the cultural gulf in Lebanon.

Dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a blue T-shirt, Hamzi – who declined to give his last name because he was not authorized to speak to the media – resembles any other ordinary young man in Lebanon.

But when his contemporaries are partying or shopping, he can be found kneeling in prayer, on duty in one of Hezbollah's military strongholds, or attending another training session in Iran where he specializes in antitank weapons.

When asked his opinion about the outcome of the June vote, the young, stocky fighter smiles.

"We in Hezbollah have faith that we will win with our opposition allies, and this will be something good for us," he says softly.

For Hamzi and other members of Hezbollah, victory should herald a respite from domestic and international pressure to disarm the party's powerful military apparatus.

"We'll know that the next government is watching our backs, and that the backstabbers will have departed," he says, referring to the current March 14-dominated administration.

'What choice is there?'

In the Sin al-Fil neighborhood of east Beirut, Jean Fares could be the Lebanese antithesis of Hamzi. He prefers riding his 500cc Kawasaki motorcycle along Lebanon's coast and enjoying Beirut's vibrant nightlife rather than fretting about politics. But he says he knows the implications of his ballot.

"Either I vote for an open democratic society or I vote for an Islamist state, a mini-Iran," Mr. Fares says. "What choice is there?"

Since 2006, the US has sent Lebanon some $410 million in military aid to bolster state institutions and undermine Hezbollah's claim to be the sole effective defender of Lebanon.

Yet the military assistance program could be jeopardized if the opposition wins, US Vice President Joe Biden hinted during a brief visit to Beirut in late May. "We will evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates," he said.

Hezbollah's leaders are mindful of the perceptions that a win will generate internationally.

"Hezbollah does not want to be at the forefront of the next government because of the possible repercussions [from] the West," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese expert on Hezbollah. "It will probably take a back seat and let its opposition allies front the government."

A razor-thin margin

As few as four or five seats could decide the makeup of the new 128-seat parliament, and parties are pulling out all the stops in hope of victory. Candidates harangue one another each night on seemingly endless political talk shows. Their faces grin from billboards and massive posters, some covering five floors of office blocks on major roads. Even houses in remote mountain villages are smothered with electoral posters and party flags.

Vote-buying long has been a feature of Lebanese elections, and 2009 has been no exception. Observers believe that more money is being spent this year to secure votes than ever before.

The practice has its own established rituals and conventions. Ali, a Shiite from southern Beirut, says his family recently received a visit from a representative lobbying for votes on behalf of a Sunni politician. At the end of his pitch, according to Ali, the official offered each member of the family $1,000.

"He was very insistent that the money was a gift and not a bribe for our vote," Ali chuckles. He says he and his relatives listened politely to the official, thanked him for the offer, and told him they would think about it a few days then get in touch.

"We can't accept his offer. We are with Hezbollah, and that's who we will be voting for," Ali says.

Christians have the decisive vote

Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze community and one of the sharpest political operators in Lebanon, sips from a glass of iced mineral water, his thin lanky frame slumped in a garden chair in the cobbled courtyard of his Beirut mansion.

Casually dressed in jeans and white shirt, he has just returned from a long day's electioneering in Druze districts of the western Bekaa Valley. A leader of the March 14 block and until recently an outspoken critic of Hezbollah, Mr. Jumblatt has softened his tone of late, sensing the shifting balance of power in Lebanon. But he knows that the outcome of the election rests mainly with Christian voters in the Metn and Keserwan districts north of Beirut and in the town of Zahle in the Bekaa Valley.

"Which way will the Christians vote?" he asks. "The last week will be decisive."

His March 14 colleague, Saad Hariri, who heads the Future Movement, has ruled out joining a government of national unity if the opposition wins the election, preferring to let Hezbollah and its allies shoulder the responsibilities of leadership alone. Jumblatt says he too, as a member of March 14, is inclined not to participate in a coalition government. But he leaves some room for maneuver.

"Let's wait and see what is decided after the election," he says. "We will have to play by the rules of the game."

Will an independent bloc bridge the divide?

The real winner may turn out to be neither from the Hezbollah-led opposition nor March 14. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman has tacitly entered the electoral race by endorsing candidates for a so-called independent parliamentary bloc that could end up holding the balance of power between the two main rival factions.

"All the statistics show that any new majority is going to be very small and the minority is going to be very large. This will not make things easier in ending bottlenecks in the government and parliament," says Nazem al-Khoury, an independent candidate allied to President Suleiman, his former neighbor. "The president feels there is a need for a regulatory bloc that will help parliament and the cabinet to function effectively and break this perpetual deadlock."

The president's intervention in the elections does not sit well with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the opposition's largest Christian party, headed by former premier and Army commander Michel Aoun. Its leaders suspect that the independent bloc is a means of leaching votes away from them for the benefit of March 14.

"The aim is to try and reduce General Aoun's Christian presence in the political system," says Ibrahim Kanaan, a parliamentarian with the FPM. "The president doesn't need an independent bloc. It discredits him [to become involved in the elections]."

An outcome of far-reaching implications

Flawed and corrupt though they may be, the Lebanese elections nonetheless retain a flavor of vibrant democracy that is sorely lacking in many other countries in the region. And, most assuredly, many eyes will be closely scrutinizing Lebanon's June 7 polls, the outcome of which will ripple across the Middle East, helping shape and influence the dynamics of the region.

Asked if Lebanon can find some peace and stability, Mr. Khoury says, "Tell me what will happen between Syria and Iran and the US and Iran, then I can answer you.

"It's always been this way," he adds. "But now Lebanon is even more greatly implicated in all the major issues of the region."

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