Thursday, April 26, 2012

Political changes in Beirut hit a wall of sectarian reality

The Lebanese will vote in a new parliament next year, and the campaign has already begun. Given the tensions in Syria, regional volatility, and also a host of domestic factors, Lebanon's politicians and political forces are already manoeuvring in anticipation of an election that could have far-reaching consequences for the country.

At the heart of myriad calculations in Beirut is the situation in Syria and the possibility that the regime of President Bashar Al Assad will fall - or continue to face a prolonged period of instability. Mr Al Assad's allies, while they insist that he will remain in power, realise his survival will be difficult. Each is responding to that prospect in different ways.

Hizbollah has the most to lose from regime change in Damascus. There have been reports that, along with Iran, the party has been assisting in the Syrian repression. In Lebanon, however, it has played the stability card, ensuring that the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati remains in place until the elections. Hizbollah fears that if there is a political vacuum in Beirut, this may turn to its disfavour and precipitate an internal sectarian conflict.

Other notable partners of Syria, such as Nabih Berri, the Shia speaker of parliament, have a different agenda. Mr Berri wants to regain his post after the elections, but also intends to reinvent himself if his long-time patrons are ousted. He has chafed at Hizbollah's domination of the Shia community, and of him. The speaker has marched in lock-step with Hizbollah, out of necessity or under duress, but knows that to survive politically in a post-Al Assad order, he would have to become a centrist Shia, by mediating between the Sunni community and Hizbollah.

Mr Berri's electoral options are not great. Hizbollah-backed lists are expected to win a lion's share of seats in mainly Shia areas, while the party will most likely pursue its collaboration with Michel Aoun in mixed Christian-Muslim districts. The speaker has no choice but to stick with Hizbollah in most places. However, his electorate can play on the margins, particularly in mixed Christian-Shia constituencies. Mr Berri lost Christian seats to Mr Aoun, whom he loathes, in 2009. He hopes to regain them to better portray himself as a national leader with a cross-sectarian parliamentary bloc.

On the Christian side, the major groups are all eyeing each other with suspicion. Mr Aoun controls the largest number of Christian seats in parliament. However, his political movement has lost momentum lately, because it has been unable to make anything of its substantial representation in Mr Mikati's government. Though he labelled his bloc the Change and Reform bloc, Mr Aoun has achieved neither. Rather, he has embraced with gusto Lebanese patronage politics and nepotism, far more than those he condemns.

Mr Aoun will be in his late 70s next year, one reason why his bitter Christian rival, Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces, has been aggressively preparing to bring a large Christian bloc of his own into parliament. Mr Geagea, who survived an assassination attempt some weeks ago, believes now is the time to challenge the Aounists. Mr Geagea senses that Christian anxieties, and the tribulations of Mr Al Assad, create new opportunities for him to exploit.

Lebanese Christians are worried about their future. The community makes up around a third of the population, and Sunni-Shia dynamics are shaping Lebanon far more than Christian-Muslim dynamics. Mr Geagea is positioning himself as the man best capable of navigating his coreligionists through the uncertainty of a region in flux, in which he believes Sunnis will regain the upper hand against Iran and its followers. That's why he has sided with the mainly Sunni Arab regimes in opposing Mr Al Assad's rule, when Mr Aoun and Maronite patriarch Beshara Al Rai have defended Syria's leadership.

Mr Geagea's strategy will be to build on his good relationship with Lebanon's principal Sunni politician, Saad Hariri, and ask that many more Lebanese Forces candidates be placed on lists benefiting from pro-Hariri votes. He will also play on Christian fears of Hizbollah, especially in mainly Christian districts where the Shia swing vote can yet be decisive, such as Baabda, Jbeil, and to a lesser extent the Metn.

The Lebanese Forces leader is not only a thorn in Mr Aoun's side; his ambitions are also alarming his own Christian partners. For instance, the Phalange party, one of Lebanon oldest, worries that Mr Geagea's appetites, and the electoral demands he will make of Mr Hariri, will come at their expense. Given the party's declining weight, Phalange candidates may well be bumped for Mr Geagea's.

There has been much discussion recently that a new electoral law, one based on proportional representation, will be adopted for 2013. That seems doubtful, because proportionality would erode the hegemony of the big political actors. To become law, it would need to be approved by parliament, which is dominated by the very actors who stand to lose most from the proposal. In the absence of agreement over a new election law, the 2009 law, or some version of it, will prevail.

This leaves us with an irony. While Lebanon may be on the cusp of a new era free of Syrian meddling, in which Hizbollah will have to re-examine its options without the backing of Damascus, the country's election system will perpetuate the same political entities. That's why the Lebanese are so dubious today, even as they prepare for an election with the potential to change more than they imagine.

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