Friday, June 1, 2012

The ballot blues

There is a consensus that the outcome of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections next year will be greatly affected by the situation in Syria. That’s a sensible conclusion to draw, but it should not detract from the fact that the March 14 coalition would do better to start preparing for elections now, independently of Syrian developments.

As Hezbollah observes its ally, Bashar al-Assad, struggling for political survival, it is devising a fallback plan to protect itself if the Syrian regime is ousted. The party is focused on winning a parliamentary majority, which would select a new president a year later and then take full control of the apparatus of the state. This is a strategic necessity for Hezbollah, and therefore denying the party and its allies such a victory should be a strategic necessity for March 14.

Among March 14 devotees, particularly in predominantly Christian areas, the mood is upbeat. They sense that Michel Aoun has lost ground, and that some of the political alignments that have afforded him considerable electoral punch are fraying. They will argue, for instance, that Aoun may no longer benefit from the block Armenian vote in the Metn. How the Armenian Tashnaq Party leans will, in part, be shaped by the behavior and survivability of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, where a sizable Armenian community resides.

That assessment could be correct. The results in the predominantly Christian districts of Mount Lebanon—specifically Baabda, the Metn, Kesrouan and Jbeil, as well as Aley and the Chouf, where Walid Jumblatt rules—will probably define who ultimately holds a parliamentary majority. But would Bashar’s fall, assuming his regime does go within the coming year, necessarily harm Aoun’s chances of remaining the politician with the largest Christian bloc?

March 14 could err on the side of hubris by answering in the affirmative, providing Aoun with a decisive advantage. The reality is that if elections were held today, the general would still likely win the largest bloc of Christians, despite his setbacks. Here is why.

Even if we accept that Aoun’s popularity has regressed, this does not mean that March 14 has gained. There are anecdotal signs that the Lebanese Forces have expanded their base of support in Mount Lebanon, but winning the vote involves a complex game of alliances that Samir Geagea would have trouble managing alone. Aoun will benefit greatly from unified Shia backing in Baabda and Jbeil, and his prospects for a victory in Jezzine are relatively high, since the alternative is a list of candidates backed by the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, who is not liked among Christians in the district.

In the Metn the Armenians may yet go their own way, but there is no overriding motivation for them to do so. If Aoun is the dominant player, why should they abandon him? Tashnaq has been talking to Michel al-Murr lately, but this need not be at Aoun’s expense. Remember that during the last elections in 2009, the Armenians voted for Murr even though they were represented in the Aounist list.

As for Sami Gemayel, he, too, will probably win reelection. However, the Gemayels are arguably more wary of their professed allies than of their adversaries. The Kataeb Party quietly views the Lebanese Forces as a political competitor, since both fish in the same electoral pond. Sami Gemayel rightly feels that he can appeal to the Aounist base in the Metn, but if he expects to win only his own seat (as opposed to bringing several candidates in on his coattails), he doesn’t want to have to compete with a Lebanese Forces candidate over that seat.

In the Kesrouan, where traditional politics tend to dominate, it will be equally difficult to unseat Aoun. That does not mean that the general’s list will not be vulnerable to individual challenges. In 2009, for instance, Carlos EddĂ© made a surprisingly strong showing in the district. Past parliamentarians, such as Mansour al-Bon, continue to have followers, and family rivalries can affect voting patterns. However, because party politics are less influential in the Kesrouan, electoral jockeying could undermine a concerted March 14 campaign.

In the districts of Aley and the Chouf, March 14 may have the upper hand, but only through a door opened by Walid Jumblatt. The Druze leader is flirting with March 14 because he needs Sunni votes in the Chouf and for his candidates in Beirut and the West Bekaa. However, once elections are over, his interests and those of March 14 may yet diverge. Jumblatt, if he strides the middle as he has in the past three years, can become the kingmaker in a new government.

To win an election, one needs money. March 14, by the admission of its own partisans, does not have a great deal to spare these days, with Saad Hariri outside of Lebanon. These are early times, however, and the checks may begin arriving in early 2013.

However, it will require a bit more to persuade voters to choose the candidates of the former majority. Hezbollah and Aoun are exposed enough, their project of governance discredited enough, that March 14 has a valuable weapon to deploy in its own favor. But unless, and until, it can show that its project is more credible than that of the current majority, and convince a public whose cynicism is at an apoplectic high, the election consequences may disappoint.

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