Sunday, August 12, 2012

Are the Christian parties over?

There was much gnashing of teeth after the government’s passage of a new electoral law based on proportional representation. March 14 viewed it as a case of gerrymandering, benefiting Hezbollah and playing against the Future Movement. The coalition, along with Walid Jumblatt’s bloc, will likely vote the proposal down in parliament.

But an interesting aspect of the debate over the law is how the Christian parties in March 14 reacted to it. Both the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb blamed the Aounists for having allegedly gone back on what was agreed at a conclave in Bkirki, when Christian leaders agreed to back small electoral districts on the grounds that this better allowed Christian voters to choose their representatives.

Their reaction was somewhat disingenuous. Sure, Michel Aoun had no intention of opposing Hezbollah on the election project, which subdivides Lebanon into 13 electoral districts. But both the Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, and Amin and Sami Gemayel, who head the Kataeb Party, are not especially unhappy with the deadlock over a new law. Its failure to be approved would mean that the Lebanese will vote on the basis of the 1960 law that also governed elections in 2005 and 2009, with which they have few problems.

That said, both the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb are quietly aware of their limitations in the upcoming elections, even as they have put up a front of self-confidence. Geagea has been especially skillful at that game, exploiting his openings when he can and allowing those around him to predict a windfall for Lebanese Forces candidates next year. However, the certitude of widespread success seems less certain.

The Lebanese Forces should do well in the constituencies of the North. In Bcharre and Batroun the party has substantial support; in the Koura too, where it recently won a by-election with the backing of the Future Movement’s Farid Makari. In Tripoli, Geagea has his eye on the Maronite seat and believes that it should be taken away from the city, where few Maronites live, and re-attached to Batroun.

The real question mark for the Lebanese Forces is Mount Lebanon. In all the electoral districts there, the party has followers but is incapable of forming lists. And in many places it will be at a disadvantage if it faces lists that are endorsed by larger voting blocs.

For instance in Baabda, where the Lebanese Forces have a significant political base, Hezbollah can neutralize the party’s electorate thanks to a unified Shiite electorate and the ability to virtually expand the number of votes in its favor at will, illegally, thanks to its effective control over polling stations in the areas under its sway.

Much the same holds in Jbeil, where the Shiite vote is equally cohesive, and collectively makes up a very important share of the total number of voters. As for the Metn, the solid Armenian bloc has been the king-maker in recent years. The Armenians may ensure that Sami Gemayel goes through, but unless they break with Aoun, they will prevent the triumph of a full-fledged March 14 list.

Michel Aoun has lost ground in the Kesrouan, according to his own partisans, but that will probably little benefit the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb. The fact is that in the district, as in the Metn and other constituencies, those candidates who will probably benefit from Aoun’s misfortune will be more traditional politicians, from notable families, who have kept a distance from the stark political battle between March 14 and March 8 with the Aounists.

In the Shouf and Aley, Walid Jumblatt will, as usual, call the shots, picking and choosing Christian candidates in line with his political interests. That may involve opting for a Lebanese Forces member here and a Kataeb member there, but ultimately he will mainly go for established Christians who hail from the mountain, not party appointees, who guarantee that his lists remain balanced regionally.

In Zahle, where the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb hope to place candidates, the mood has never been particularly receptive to the two parties. Both have an electorate, but much will be determined by the strategy of Elie Skaff, still the major player in the town. Many in Zahle were unhappy with his alliance with Aoun, and now that he has abandoned the general, they are waiting to see how he will position himself. The Lebanese Forces and Kataeb will probably win a good number of Sunni votes, but in the end both parties will bend to political realities over which their control is limited.

The fact is that in most districts both the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb must rely on the goodwill of more powerful local political actors for victory, and even to place their candidates on lists. Recognizing this, Geagea is apparently calculating that Saad Hariri will open up seats for him on lists in areas where Future voters prevail. Yet Future officials affirm this will not be easy. Hariri is keen to show that his movement is confessionally broad-based, and he will not readily sacrifice his Christian parliamentarians just to please his Christian party allies, even if compromises are possible.

A prediction. The atmosphere in the coming elections may well undercut Aounist candidates, but the March 14 Christian political parties won’t gain from this. Those who will are candidates better attuned to local concerns and solidarities. There will be exceptions to the rule, since in some districts party candidates are also traditional leaders (take Sami Gemayel in the Metn), but by and large the March 14 label is not one that will excite Christian voters; on the contrary.

That may not be so bad. The Christian community is in need of more invigorating pluralism than we’ve had in the past seven years since the Syrians pulled out of Lebanon. The Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb and the Aounists are entitled to representation, but it’s high time Christians started to wrench free from their exclusive hold.

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