Thursday, April 18, 2013

Political moves in Lebanon will test Beirut's stability

A Sunni politician from Beirut, Tammam Salam, has been designated to form a new Lebanese government. The main problem he is facing today is disagreements over what role the government should play, with elections scheduled to begin next June.

Mr Salam's appointment followed intense manoeuvring after the resignation of Najib Mikati. Hizbollah had wanted Mr Mikati to head a new government, while the party's main opponent, Saad Hariri, was apparently preparing to name Ashraf Rifi, the former head of the Internal Security Forces, as his bloc's candidate.

Neither man would have been ideal: Many Sunnis resented Mr Mikati for associating with Hizbollah in his previous government, while Mr Rifi would have been regarded as a provocation by Hizbollah, which sees the ISF as the security agency of the rival March 14 coalition.

Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader who holds the balance in parliament between March 14 and the Hizbollah-dominated March 8 coalition, broke the deadlock. Mr Jumblatt cannot afford Sunni-Shia conflict, as his base region is caught between majority Sunni and Shia districts. He travelled to Saudi Arabia to persuade the head of the Saudi intelligence service, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, to back Mr Salam, a notable moderate. Though this was not easy, the prince finally agreed, obliging Mr Hariri, Lebanon's preeminent Sunni politician, to endorse Mr Salam.

Mr Salam's appointment as prime minister was widely welcomed by the Lebanese, who in previous weeks had sensed that their country was slipping into sectarian strife and economic decline. The Syrian conflict has been the primary cause of this development, with Hizbollah militarily backing the regime of the president, Bashar Al Assad, and most Lebanese Sunnis staunchly behind the rebels.

Lebanon's economy, too, has suffered from the fighting, which has reduced the export of goods to the Arab world. The Syrian war has discouraged tourists from visiting Lebanon in the past two years, a blow to the country's tourism sector.

Mr Mikati's government itself was wracked by divisions and perennial dissonance. Though it included political forces that were not necessarily antagonistic to each other, the government was undermined by the conflicting interests of its members, and Mr Mikati had perhaps hoped that by stepping down he would be able to form a more cohesive government. It is not surprising, then, that his resignation calmed the atmosphere by removing a source of frustration.

Still, Mr Salam's task is not an easy one. The major point of contention is what type of government he will form: will it be small, made up of non-partisan ministers whose principal role will be to organise parliamentary elections before resigning? Or will it be a national-unity government, Hizbollah's preference, with more political figures as ministers, which would last longer than Mr Salam would like?

Mr Salam has insisted that his priority is holding elections. He realises that a political government would be one that he has trouble controlling and whose legitimacy would be questioned if elections are indefinitely delayed. Last Monday, the March 8 coalition offered a compromise. It said it would support a non-partisan government if a parliamentary election law were agreed before the government's formation. The offer seemed reasonable, designed to avert a political vacuum, but Hizbollah's aim was rather different.

Hizbollah has been trying to prepare the political context in Lebanon for the possible fall of the Al Assad regime in Syria. Its prime objective is to gain control of the levers of the Lebanese state to protect itself and its weapons once the Syrian leader goes. Hizbollah's strategy is to win a majority in parliament, with its allies, or at least to prevent March 14 from winning one. A majority would allow the party to vote in a president and select a speaker of parliament, as well as to name all of Lebanon's senior military and security officials.

But for Hizbollah to achieve a parliamentary majority, it needs an election law that would guarantee it a victory. The party has succeeded in shifting the debate away from the present law, which would probably return a March 14 majority to parliament. It has also backed two other suggestions, a proportional voting system and the so-called Orthodox proposal, which would allow voters to vote only for candidates from their religious sect.

The Orthodox proposal has been criticised by those who say it will divide Lebanon further. The scheme will probably not be approved by parliament, but its offensiveness has pushed political forces to consider a fallback project of a mixed system that would include both proportional representation and a winner-take-all system. All these ideas have one overriding advantage for Hizbollah: they make the current law ever less likely and will weaken the electoral power of Mr Hariri, satisfying the party's aims.

That is why Hizbollah is so keen to push for a quick agreement over an election law. Once the party can secure a law that it views favourably, it matters little what Mr Salam does with his government, as he will be in office for a limited time. No one expects elections in June, however, making a delay likely. After that, Hizbollah wagers, it will be in a position to win a majority and form a pliable government.

But what that would mean is that Mr Salam, by insisting that elections take place on time, is doing precisely what Hizbollah wants. The party is using this as leverage for quick passage of a law it wants. Elections may ultimately take Lebanon back to the foul mood of some weeks ago, as Sunni-Shia tensions rise again. No wonder Mr Salam is not keen to manage the unwieldy Lebanese beast for too long.

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