Thursday, July 10, 2008

Don't dismiss Aoun's 'big tent' strategy

Don't dismiss Aoun's 'big tent' strategy
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, July 10, 2008

It is easy to dismiss the National Christian Gathering established last week as largely an assemblage of pro-Syrian politicians, has-beens, and never-beens. In fact launching the group was a shrewd move by Michel Aoun, one the March 14 majority will regret not having done first. The gathering reflects a realistic reading by Aoun of his political prospects in next year's elections. The general knows that the days of bringing into Parliament a large bloc of yes-men are over and that he must, therefore, ally himself with politicians having a power base in those districts where he competes. The Christian gathering is Aoun's way of compensating. By bringing those politicians into his "big tent," the general turns himself into the godfather of a broad Christian coalition, one that is likely to win a majority of seats in Baabda, Metn, Kisirwan and Jbeil, and perhaps even in Zahleh and the mainly Christian voting district in Beirut.

For those Christian politicians who did not benefit from the post-2005 order, Aoun's gathering is their ticket back into the system. They gain from riding Aoun's coattails, and he gains from their willingness to defer to him as the most potent of Christian leaders. Aoun may have lost the presidency through his own blunders, but his fallback plan is to be the president of the Christians, and there he might well succeed.

The Christian Gathering benefits from something else as well. It brings together certifiable electoral favorites. The Tashnak Party will give Aoun substantial weight in the Metn, which is why Michel Murr may have no alternative but to reach some sort of an understanding with Aoun and the Armenians. In Zghorta, Suleiman Franjieh is guaranteed of winning at least two of the constituency's three seats, and the likelihood of a sweep is high. In Zahleh, Elie Skaff is vulnerable, but the fact that he has been handed the Agriculture Ministry, which will allow him to dispense patronage in his mostly agricultural constituency, like the fact that there will be voters who will side with Skaff to avoid ceding too much weight to the sizeable Sunni electorate around Zahleh, will play to his advantage.

As for the Baabda constituency, like the one in Jbeil, there Aoun will benefit from the unified Shiite vote controlled by Hizbullah. The general may decide to back some candidates close to the president, Michel Suleiman, but they will owe their election to Aoun.

Then there is the fact that Aoun's new gathering, while it contains prominent pro-Syrians, also includes individuals who opposed Syria. For every Michel Samaha you have a Shakib Qortbawi, for every Suleiman Franjieh and Elie Ferzli you have a Farid al-Khazen and a Pierre Dakkash; and while Fares Boueiz may not be what he was when his father-in-law, Elias Hrawi, was president, he was among the few parliamentarians who voted against an extension of Emile Lahoud's mandate, and he was on hand at the Hariri residence on February 14, 2005, when the opposition at the time read its bill of indictment against Syria and the Lebanese government following Rafik Hariri's assassination.

Those of us who prematurely wrote Aoun off as a Christian force are being forced to backtrack. The general has been destructive; he has foolishly alienated the Sunni community when doing the contrary would have almost certainly guaranteed his election as president; he has built up a strategic relationship with a party, Hizbullah, that is the greatest single threat to the sovereignty of the state that the Lebanese have ever known; yet Aoun has endured because, while he has lost ground within the Christian community, many of his coreligionists, even when they don't care for the general, tend to think like him and have gone along with him whenever he has vented their frustrations with the post-Taif order.

This is where March 14 comes in. The parliamentary majority lost the Christians because of the quadripartite agreement of 2005, but has done nothing since then to make up for that loss. When the Christians see Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, they see two men who have absolute control over constituencies in which the Christian representatives are picked by them. The same applies to predominantly Shiite areas, but for some reason today the Christians have a blind eye when it comes to Hizbullah. This control by Hariri and Jumblatt bothers the Christians to no end, because it only confirms their decline and speaks to a type of leadership alien to Lebanese politics. Before 1975, even the most powerful leaders rarely controlled blocs larger than a dozen odd parliamentarians.

Jumblatt, who knows his Lebanese history better than most, may already be recalculating his options for 2009. He has written Baabda off to Aoun, though Jumblatt will retain his control over the Chouf and Aley. But even in Aley Jumblatt may have to give up a seat, perhaps even two, to his Druze rival Talal Arslan. In the Chouf, Jumblatt will surely win, since Druze and Sunni voters together make up two-thirds of the electorate. But in 2005 the Aounist candidate Mario Aoun won almost all the Christian votes, an ominous warning sign for the Druze leader.

As Jumblatt looks around him, as he surveys Christian attitudes in the Chouf, as he sees the Christians of Baabda perhaps heading Aoun's way once again, and as he sees Hizbullah pining to clip his wings, he may have no choice but to improve his relations with the Christians. Jumblatt needs them as a counterbalance to Hizbullah, but he also needs to prepare, as some observers have remarked, for the possibility that electoral districts will be redrawn to his disadvantage by a new Parliament. In that context, we shouldn't be surprised that Jumblatt, if he reckons that Aoun is here to stay, takes a more conciliatory attitude toward the general.

That leaves Saad Hariri. The way electoral districts are drawn under the 1960 law, the Sunni leader will not affect the fate of Christian candidates in the way he did in 2005. By and large the election will be one where Aoun has less latitude to rally Christians against Hariri and the Sunnis. However, that should not be an excuse for the Future Movement, and for March 14 in general, to fail to adopt a more creative strategy when it comes to the Christians. If the majority wants its candidates to be elected next year, it must begin working now on bolstering a credible coalition of Christian politicians, legitimate ones, who can either stand their ground against Aoun or force him into concluding electoral alliances with them.

These Christian politicians need to be viewed by their community as independent, they need to talk about those issues that most concern Christians, they need to begin coordinating on an election strategy now, and they need to spend money and distribute patronage, which Aoun has been far more adept at doing. But being a favorite brings with it liabilities: Aoun is bound to disappoint some of those who see him as their path to an election victory. In that case, there is no reason why the March 14 Christians could not turn the tables on Aoun and do what he has done: pick up those people whom the general will have failed to satisfy.

Until such a scheme takes shape, Aoun holds the upper hand. March 14 has fashioned no serious agenda to which Christians are attracted, and if it cannot do so by election time, then some of its more pragmatic leaders might decide that if Aoun is what you get, then just work with Michel Aoun.

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