Friday, March 23, 2012

Voting for the prodigal son

It’s never a good idea to write off Saad Hariri, who next month will have spent a year outside Lebanon. However, several telltale signs suggest that the former prime minister’s absence could cost him politically in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2013.

The first is that Hariri’s Future Movement apparently continues to suffer from cash-flow problems, severely curtailing its powers of patronage. The movement has already laid off staff, and recently the two Hariri television stations, Future and Future News, merged, to further reduce expenses. While a rationalization of Future’s political expenditures was always a necessity, what we have today is more serious. Unless Hariri reinvigorates his funding networks before election time, the shortfall may decisively affect voting in areas.

A second sign is that new figures are stepping into the vacuum that Hariri has left. The case of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in Saida is a good example. Assir appeared on Marcel Ghanem’s talk show last week. He was critical of Hariri for being absent from Lebanon and for having labeled him an extremist, before coming across as someone both coherent and composed. Assir is emerging as a significant player in Saida. This cannot please the Hariris, who hail from the city and regard the mood there as a barometer of their popularity.

Even among Hariri’s followers, there is dissatisfaction. For instance, Mouin Meraabi, a parliamentarian from Akkar, has disparaged the Future Movement’s policies in the district, in particular its poor response to the humanitarian crisis brought about by the arrival of Syrian refugees. A number of Meraabi’s fellow bloc members, too, are wondering what is going on. They will not break with Hariri, but they readily acknowledge a sense of loss in Future’s political direction.

If there is to be a backlash against Saad Hariri, where might it be most potent? The Assir phenomenon in Saida needs to be watched closely. There may well be sporadic contact between the sheikh and members of the Future Movement, despite Assir’s harsh words for the former prime minister. But even if the mutual antipathy softens, the sheikh will definitely have a say in elections when Saida votes next.

In the North, Hariri should be equally careful. Already in place is the solid core of a rival list in Tripoli. It includes, of course, Najib Mikati, Mohammad Safadi, and Faysal Karami. While Mosbah al-Ahdab has been loyal to March 14, he bears a grudge against Hariri and the Future Movement for having failed to appoint him a minister in May 2008, after Michel Sleiman’s election to the presidency, and for having dropped him entirely from its list in 2009. Ahdab could conceivably join Mikati if Tripoli enters into an electoral confrontation, bringing with him valuable anti-Syrian bona fides.

Nor can we forget that there is a wild card in the city, namely Ashraf Rifi, the Internal Security Forces chief. He is popular in the North and has been protected by both Hariri and Mikati. Which list would he join if he were a candidate? The choice could be fateful. 

In Beirut, the situation is different. Hariri remains dominant because there is no obvious Sunni alternative. However, observers of Beirut politics, assuming the districting in 2013 is the same as in 2009, expect the former prime minister, because of his long absence, to be more vulnerable to the demands of his allies, among them Samir Geagea. The Lebanese Forces leader is thought to want to place at least one loyal Christian on Hariri’s list in the heavily Sunni third district of Beirut, where three Christian seats are up for grabs.

There is also some question as to how Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya will lean. Currently, the group has one parliamentarian, Imad al-Hout, from the third district in Beirut. However, Al-Jamaa has sizable bloc votes in Beirut, Saida, and Sunni districts in the North. Wherever there are races, it will find itself in an ideal position to play Hariri off against eventual challengers and demand more Al-Jamaa candidates on electoral lists, before backing the highest bidder.

In the West Bekaa and Zahle, Hariri continues to have influence over Sunni voters, but probably not as much as in 2009, when Lebanon was more polarized. In the Chouf, where a third of the electorate is Sunni, Hariri will almost certainly side with Walid Jumblatt. In exchange for this, the Druze leader is likely to see Ghazi al-Aridi taken on a Hariri list in Beirut and Wael Abu Faour in the West Bekaa. In other words, in mainly rural areas the capacity of Hariri to reconfigure or abandon his 2009 alliances will be limited.

This is important, because it implies that in many constituencies the former prime minister will perhaps react more than he initiates. In Saida and Tripoli, whether there is a contest or the political differences with his opponents are papered over, Hariri may be less the dominating force that he was during the previous two elections. Even in Beirut, he may have to pay a fee to his allies, who will feel that they are entitled to more from the former prime minister for having remained in Lebanon through difficult times when he was abroad.

The outcome in Syria will have a fundamental impact on the next elections, and on the Sunni mood specifically. Until now, Hariri and his followers have been insufficiently active, except verbally, in taking advantage of what has become a defining struggle for the Sunnis of Syria, and by extension of Lebanon. The former prime minister still expects to alight at the last minute, promise assistance and win a new majority. But things may not be quite so simple.

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