Friday, January 3, 2014

You've got the power

Lebanon may be shaped largely by the dynamics of the tense Sunni-Shiite relationship. However, in 2014 Christians will have a vital say in two events that will profoundly affect the country in the years ahead: the presidential and parliamentary elections.

If Hezbollah’s intention is to tighten its control over Lebanon, in parallel to the consolidation of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria, then the elections will be vital in that effort. For a start, the party is keen to be rid of Michel Suleiman, who has taken positions very different than those of Hezbollah. The party has even threatened retaliation if he forms a government of which it does not approve.

But Suleiman is finding little backing from within his own community, so eager are Maronite leaders, of all stripes, to have a say in whoever becomes president – particularly if it is themselves.

For a long time the favorite appeared to be the army commander, Jean Kahwaji, who, it was said, was Hezbollah’s candidate. Kahwaji’s term was extended last year with this possibility in mind. But a number of things indicate that the commander is really only Hezbollah’s first shot, allowing the party to better sight the second.

Kahwaji does not enjoy a consensus nationally. Most Christian leaders would probably not vote for him, especially Michel Aoun; the Sunni community in general mistrusts the army command’s close ties to Hezbollah; and the political class is broadly uneasy about bringing yet another military man in as president.

Most important, as a grade-one civil servant, Kahwaji would require a constitutional amendment to stand for the presidency. That necessitates a two-thirds vote in parliament, which will be very difficult if not impossible for Hezbollah to achieve.

There is, however, another grade-one civil servant who has a much better chance of being elected, who is more consensual, and who, several insiders insist, is Hezbollah’s true candidate: Riad Salameh, the governor of the Central Bank. Salameh may outbid Kahwaji because he is apolitical, has been a successful governor, has garnered credibility abroad, can generate financial confidence, is not a military man, and, from Hezbollah’s perspective, is politically weak, therefore may be easier to control than other Maronites.

If Salameh, or any other candidate, emerges as the favorite, Maronite approval will be necessary. Even if several candidates, from Samir Geagea to Suleiman Franjieh to Michel Aoun, announce their bids for the presidency, they will see that gaining a majority is not easy, given the makeup of parliament. The question is whether, having arrived at this conclusion, they will rally to the likely victor or dissolve into factionalism. In this, Patriarch Bishara al-Rai, whose sole fixation seems to be politics, will have an important unifying role to play.

Parliamentary elections are another matter altogether. Hezbollah’s ability to manipulate the outcome of the voting, by imposing an election law to its advantage, is limited. The party is caught in a dilemma: the current 1960 law would probably create a balance in parliament similar to what we have today – with Walid Jumblatt’s bloc giving the majority either to March 8 or to March 14. But the law is also one that earned Aoun a disproportionate share of Christian seats in parliament, because his candidates benefited from friendly Shiite electorates in Baabda, Jbeil, Metn, Jezzine, and even Kisirwan.

In other words, the law that best suits Aoun is also one that may force Hezbollah to rely on Jumblatt’s backing, something the party is not at all eager to do. Aoun declared last year that he was against the 1960 law, but that’s only because the mood in the Christian community was hostile to it. In reality, the general knows that no other law will give him such a substantial share of Christian seats in parliament.

That is why Samir Geagea and the Kataeb Party were so willing last year to break with their March 14 allies over the 1960 law. They knew it would have again limited them to tiny blocs, perhaps permanently marginalizing them in the Christian community.

Hezbollah, to secure a majority behind any law, must reconcile the interests of Jumblatt and Aoun. That’s not difficult given Aoun’s stake in the 1960 law and the Druze leader’s understanding that it is the only law on the table allowing him to dominate in Aley and the Shouf.

But Hezbollah, on the other hand, does not want to run the risk of replicating the outcome of 2009. Nor can it rely on Jumblatt to side with Hezbollah in the future. For a party that regards 2014 as the year to consolidate its hold over Lebanon’s political system, after three years of war in Syria, this uncertainty is not reassuring.

What that means is that the Christians, and the Maronites in particular, will have a significant role to play in deciding outcomes in Lebanon. Yet that depends on whether they can unite around a president and an election law – or else expect elections to again be postponed as no agreement emerges over a law.

But that optimistic reading means Christians will be on the same page, and nothing is more doubtful. How ironic at a moment when Christians agree that they face existential dangers, lost as they are in the midst of an alarming struggle between Sunnis and Shiites. 

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