Thursday, October 11, 2012

Geagea searches for electoral relevance

Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces leader, visited Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, in Jeddah on Tuesday. There is no reason to doubt reports that the meeting went well, and that there was “full agreement on national issues.” However, the debate over an election law is exposing contrasting interests among the March 14 allies.

The Geagea-Hariri alliance is solid and will remain so. However, when the Lebanese Forces leader flies to Saudi Arabia so soon after a meeting between his parliamentarian, Antoine Zahra, and Hariri, you know something is amiss. There is a gap between the two sides over the election law, particularly in light of the reconciliation in Paris several weeks ago between the former prime minister and Walid Jumblatt. It was clear that both were on the same wavelength in opposing a government draft election law based on proportional representation.

The rapprochement between Jumblatt and Hariri poses a number of challenges for Geagea. There are reports that Zahra was informed by Hariri that the political relationship with Jumblatt was very valuable to the former prime minister. This is not surprising when Sunni voters make up a third of the electorate in the Chouf, and must collaborate with the Druze to ensure the victory of Hariri lists in Beirut and the West Bekaa. Geagea’s Jeddah trip may have been an effort to see just where he stood with Hariri and perhaps earn guarantees for the future.

The Lebanese Forces leader is perfectly aware that where Hariri and Jumblatt go on an election law, March 14 will follow. The opposition has presented an electoral project that divides Lebanon into 50 districts. The exercise is a waste of time. Hariri publicly says he supports the plan, but only because he needs to show a united front. There will be no accord over the March 14 proposal in Parliament, nor will there be one over the government’s draft law. This strongly implies that, by default, the 2009 law will again govern elections.

Geagea’s problem is that the 2009 law is markedly unpopular among Christians, because it means that many of their candidates are chosen by predominantly non-Christian electorates. When Michel Aoun is backing a law that allows Christians to vote for Christians, this provides him with a tactical advantage over Geagea. Whether the Lebanese Forces leader likes it or not, he will ultimately have to go along with Hariri, who has no problems with the 2009 law. This could cost Geagea among Christians, unless he can be compensated in some way.

What might Geagea be satisfied with? A significant number of his appointees on Hariri and Jumblatt lists, perhaps. A serious effort to move the Maronite seat in Tripoli to Batroun – or barring that, the naming of a Lebanese Forces candidate for the Tripoli seat. Financial assistance for the campaign. But also, and more broadly, a solid reaffirmation of the centrality of the Lebanese Forces in the partnership with Hariri. After all, if Jumblatt can be welcomed back by the former prime minister, despite his betrayal last year, Geagea, who always remained loyal, merits something better in return. His ambition is to challenge Aoun as the principal Christian representative, and Hariri’s lists and electorate are his tickets to that ambition.

Unfortunately, Geagea suffers from political shortcomings. The Lebanese Forces are less influential than they like to imagine. The party has made great strides in recent years, yet it is capable of forming lists in very few constituencies. In the Christian heartland of Mount Lebanon the Lebanese Forces have a definite presence, but not a dominant one. In the Metn, Kesrouan, Jbeil, Aley and the Chouf, the party is not a decisive electoral force, its undeniable importance notwithstanding. In Baabda, the Lebanese Forces have greater sway, but this is more than neutralized by Hezbollah’s voters, real and imagined, whose numbers can be expanded almost at will depending on how many votes the party needs to win.

Geagea would be right to respond that he embodies rather more than a mere election tool for Hariri. After all, he is the leading Christian in March 14. His collaboration is critical for a mainly Sunni Future Movement that aspires to cross-sectarian appeal. Moreover, Geagea has been steadfast on those issues essential to Sunnis – above all opposition to Hezbollah’s arms and support for the uprising in Syria.

But Geagea is in a dilemma. If Lebanon votes according to the 2009 law next year, and the Lebanese Forces endorse it because they’ve received more candidate seats, the party risks being discredited among Christians as an appendage of the Future Movement. But if Geagea doesn’t gain seats, the Lebanese Forces could be perceived as having fatally stagnated. The Jeddah encounter may have been a great success, but expect more before Geagea and Hariri achieve full harmony.

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