Thursday, July 26, 2007

If the Metn votes, Aoun can be beaten

Michel Aoun has taken a risk in deciding to contest the Metn by-election against the former president, Amine Gemayel. Mediation may yet succeed in averting a destructive electoral contest. If Aoun agrees to this, he would be doing the right thing, because even if the general does come out on top - and his candidate is the favorite - some victories are better left not won.

Aoun is prone to getting sidetracked. Back when he was liberating Lebanon from the Syrian Army, he took time off to destroy the Lebanese Forces. The army and the militia ended up destroying each other, and the Syrians walked into the predominantly Christian areas on October 13, 1990. Not surprisingly, Damascus has been pushing for an election contest in the Metn, and has mobilized its client parties for that purpose. Whenever the Christians are divided, the Syrians are better able to help themselves to Lebanon's sovereignty. So little seems to change.

On paper, Aoun and his allies have more votes than Gemayel, assuming they mobilize their voting blocs to the limit. But that's not taking into consideration the large mass of floating Metn voters whose allegiances are unclear. It is those voters who elected Gabriel Murr against Myrna Murr and very long odds in 2002; and it is they who gave Aoun a landslide victory in 2005. However, Aoun is said to have lost support since then, and the election will be the first real test of his alliance with Hizbullah.

Aoun is vulnerable in victory. The general has argued that by choosing his candidate, Camille Khoury, voters would improve his own chances of becoming president, so that Christians would finally have a strong leader. But if the price of Aoun's triumph is a more divided Christian community - as will be the case after the by-election - then the general will have to prove that this is somehow good for Christians. Today Aoun can still claim to have unified the Metn in 2005; but a bruising by-election, unless he crushes Gemayel, which is unlikely, will show precisely the opposite. What will the ensuing rancor do for Aoun's desire to end "Christian marginalization"?

Then there is Aoun's justification for entering a candidate in the race. The general would have us believe that he put Khoury forward in order to officially challenge the by-election's constitutionality, because President Emile Lahoud did not sign off on it. So, Metn voters are grappling with the tortuous logic that Aoun is participating in the by-election because he feels it is illegal. That makes you wonder whether, if Khoury wins, Aoun will do the normal thing and relinquish his Metn seat. Of course the general will not, which is when many voters will see his argument for what it is: casuistry obscuring political avidity.

A third Aoun vulnerability is that it's not always advisable to beat a man whose son was assassinated. The general has always had little sympathy for the dead, particularly the March 14 dead. Then again, he forgot his own October 13 dead with alacrity. However, Metn voters have longer memories. Even presuming that Aoun's candidate wins, the resulting animosity in the district will be multiplied by a perception that the general callously took a murdered man's seat. Worse, many voters will assume that Aoun's decision to participate was payback for not being allowed to pay his respects to the Gemayel family after Pierre Gemayel was killed. Aoun was unfairly treated, but revenge hardly looks presidential.

For all these reasons, Aoun should reconsider his decision to contest the open Metn seat. It's a seat he doesn't need, which he allowed Pierre Gemayel to win during the 2005 elections, in a district the general can already pretend to control. But if Aoun goes ahead anyway, his rivals can beat him by highlighting the general's marked inconsistencies.

Gemayel and his allies should avoid a strategy that centers around accusing Aoun of doing Syria's bidding. The general won by a large margin in 2005, and even voters displeased with him today don't want it insinuated that they voted for a Syrian puppet. Gemayel can point out that Syria would benefit from Christian divisions, but mostly the former president should focus on parochial Christian concerns in his campaign. That's what Aoun did in 2005 and it's what he's doing today. Gemayel has enough sticks with which to hit Aoun. For example, when did Christian marginalization really begin, he might ask? Wasn't it on October 13, 1990?

Gemayel should also harp on a central concern of Metn voters: their strong sense of support for the state and its institutions. The district is relatively prosperous, with a high percentage of industries compared to the rest of the country. The relationship between the state and the Metn has always been closer than that between the state and other areas. That is why the Metn championed Aoun back in 1988-1990 against the Lebanese Forces militia. And it is why Michel Murr, with his unparalleled skill in manipulating the levers of the administration on behalf of his electorate, has so successfully protected his political base. Gemayel's Kataeb Party has also long identified itself as a mainstay of state power.

Within such a context, Gemayel can argue that Aoun's alliance with Hizbullah has weakened the state because it strengthened a political-military organization overseeing a parallel state of its own. Indeed, Gemayel might want to mention the recent statement of Aoun's ally, Muhammad Raad, who leads Hizbullah's parliamentary bloc. Raad warned that there would be no presidential election if there were no government of national unity formed first. If Aoun wants a strong president, then how can he justify his alliance with a party that places its own political demands ahead of constitutional deadlines? Indeed, how can Aoun justify to his voters that he and Hizbullah would prefer to leave a vacuum at the top of the state rather than budge an inch on a unity government that would resign anyway once a president is elected?

Finally, Gemayel should play on Aoun's history of divisiveness. He divided the country when he was prime minister. He did it again when he returned to Beirut in 2005. He divided the Christians on January 23 of this year, when he blocked roads within and between Christian areas. His presidential strategy is based not on consensus but on blackmail. And even Aoun's closest Metn allies, Michel Murr and the Tashnaq Party, prefer to avoid an electoral contest, so that the decision to forge ahead with Khoury is entirely the general's responsibility. Gemayel must ask whether this is the kind of man Metn voters should be empowering.

Hopefully, it will not reach that stage. Self-interest, but also the interest of the Christians and the country as a whole, should make Aoun withdraw Camille Khoury from the Metn race. But if Aoun persists, then the next best thing to do is ensure that he will not view the results as permission to hold Lebanon hostage to his narrow political aspirations.

1 comment:

Phillip said...

Michael, I truly loved this piece. I've noticed over the course of the last 2 weeks Kataeb and LF people are much more organized than Tayyar for the Metn seat. Top that off with Sfeir (technically speaking) chastizing Aoun, Tayyar won't have much ground.