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The Consequences of a Hezbollah-Led Opposition Victory in Lebanon's Elections

Interviewee: Michael Young, Opinion Editor, Daily Star, Beirut
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
May 28, 2009

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As Lebanon heads for its parliamentary elections on June 7, Michael Young, an editor for Beirut's Daily Star newspaper and a leading observer of the Lebanese political scene, says U.S. policymakers should hope for a draw. "The least destabilizing option would be essentially a stalemate" between the Hezbollah-led opposition and U.S.-backed candidates, Young says. American politicians have made it clear that a victory by the Hezbollah-led coalition would be counter to western interests, and during a visit to Beirut on May 22, Vice President Joe Biden said future American aid could be tied to the outcome (WashPost). Young says Biden's message was simple: "If Lebanon votes right," as Washington sees it, "then there would be advantages to Lebanon." Though Hezbollah is a major force in Lebanese politics, the United States defines the Shiite Muslim political group as a terrorist organization. In 2008, following a wave of violence, Lebanon's parliament approved a national unity cabinet, giving Hezbollah and its allies eleven of thirty cabinet seats. Young says that if the opposition wins, Lebanon would also likely lose economic support from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Persian Gulf states.

Lebanon holds its election for its 128-seat parliament on June 7. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on April 26 and Vice President Joseph Biden on May 23 made short but highly publicized visits to the country talking of the importance of free elections. Biden in fact strongly suggested that American aid to Lebanon might depend on whether the pro-American government is returned to office. Why is this election so significant?

It's significant because there is question as to whether, if the Lebanese opposition wins, this will give Hezbollah decisive control over policy in Lebanon. And of course, while Hezbollah will only really win this election in alliance with other groups in the opposition, including the Christian followers of Michel Aoun [leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Party], the fact that Hezbollah has significant weapons arsenal, a private militia, and considerable influence over the commanding heights of the Lebanese state, would give it an advantage that other groups don't have. That's the big fear--that if the opposition wins, Hezbollah would have considerable say over the future policy of Lebanon.

What would a Hezbollah-led government be like? Would it be closely aligned with Syria and Iran? That's the great fear in Israel and the West, right?

That's the fear. It would be a bit more complicated though because it would not be just a victory of Hezbollah. It would be a victory of Hezbollah and its political allies. What would actually make a victory of the Lebanese opposition possible is that Hezbollah's Christian ally, Michel Aoun, a former general, would need to get well over thirty seats in the new parliament. He now has about twenty-two. So in a way, assuming the opposition wins--and I'm not at all convinced that this is necessarily going to happen--Hezbollah would not govern directly. It would participate in the government, it would play a key role in forming the government, but at the same time, I don't think it would form a majority in the government. It would probably use others, political allies of Syria, as well as allies of Michel Aoun. This would indeed be a much friendlier government to Syria, no doubt about it, but we have to also ask a key question: How easy will it be for the opposition to form a legitimate government? Because in Lebanon the prime minister is by common agreement a Sunni. It would be very difficult for the opposition to find a legitimate Sunni to sit at the top of an opposition government.

Now explain that a bit.

From the time of independence in 1943 and even before then, Lebanon has basically enshrined a sectarian system of government whereby the president of the republic is a Maronite Christian [currently Michel Suleiman, former commander-in-chief of the Lebanese Army], the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim [currently Fouad Siniora], the speaker of parliament is a Shiite Muslim [currently Nabih Berri], and on down the line you have certain posts which are for certain communities or traditionally reserved for certain communities. The Taif Accord of 1989, which ended the civil war in Lebanon, changed the ratio in the Lebanese parliament, which had been 6 to 5 in favor of the Christians, to a 50-50 ratio [between Christians and Muslims].

What are the chances that Siniora will be reelected?

The question of Hezbollah’s arms will not be resolved locally by the Lebanese. It would have to be resolved regionally, and even then I’m very skeptical at this point that there will be any progress on this front in the foreseeable future.

Siniora is very unlikely to be the future prime minister. If the Hezbollah-led opposition wins, Saad Hariri [a Sunni], leader of the so-called March 14 Alliance, which came into office after the assassination of his father-- former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri-- has already said quite firmly that he would not participate in a future government. And he would certainly not lead such a government. Not only Hariri, but also his political allies, and particularly his Sunni political allies, would probably be very reluctant to join or to head an opposition government. If the opposition wins, Hezbollah and its allies will have to find legitimate Sunnis to be in their government. They'd have to find a legitimate Sunni prime minister, which I believe will be virtually impossible. Any Sunni who sits at the head of an opposition government will probably find himself isolated within his own community.

So this will be a fascinating time then. Is this going to cause some political chaos or take months to get an agreement?

If the opposition wins, Lebanon will indeed enter into a period of long instability. If there is a substantial victory by the March 14 forces, in alliance with so-called independent candidates, you'll also have a period of instability. The "independents" are primarily Christians who have said they are neither with March 14 nor with the opposition.

A large victory by either side would be destabilizing. The least destabilizing option would be essentially a stalemate, which would mean a modest victory by a coalition of March 14 with the independents, in which any future government would be probably headed by Saad Hariri or by one of his political allies. But at the same time, given that this victory would have been modest, you would have to give the opposition some kind of role in the government--it would be a national unity government of some sort.

What is the difference between the government, the majority, and the opposition right now?

Ever since 2005, when the Syrians were forced to withdraw their forces from Lebanon, Lebanon has been caught in a big dilemma: what to do with Hezbollah. Here you have an armed militia that is in many respects more powerful that the state itself militarily and that controls essential aspects of the state. The fundamental problem has been: How do you arrive at a new social contract where Hezbollah agrees to disarm? Hezbollah has refused to disarm. This has thrown the system into great instability because what it really says is that a sovereign Lebanese state cannot emerge.

What has complicated matters is that Lebanon, in a way, is a window for the region. Hezbollah, as a local ally of Iran and of Syria, has also allowed both Syria and Iran to continue to influence the situation in Lebanon. At the same time the March 14 Alliance has aligned itself much more closely to the United States. So Lebanon is a microcosm of regional rivalries.

So if the current government, the March 14 Alliance, wins the election with just a small majority to keep stability, nothing would really change as far as Hezbollah is concerned.

There is very little doubt that the United States, while it wouldn’t cut its diplomatic relations with Lebanon, would certainly downgrade them.

We should not expect a victory by March 14 and the independents to alter the situation with respect to Hezbollah. The question of Hezbollah's arms will not be resolved locally by the Lebanese. It would have to be resolved regionally, and even then I'm very skeptical at this point that there will be any progress on this front in the foreseeable future. Lebanon will continue to be buffeted by the contradiction inherent in Hezbollah's presence. Lebanon cannot be a sovereign state, or even begin to function as a sovereign state, or begin to talk about political reform and about a new social contract in the country while one party, Hezbollah, continues to hold weapons.

Why do you think Secretary Clinton and Vice President Biden made personal visits to Lebanon? Does the United States see the election as holding a big stake for U.S. influence in the region?

They understood that it was important to come to Lebanon and to encourage voters, and particularly voters in the Christian community, because that's where the election is going to really take place. The majority of the Sunnis are with Saad Hariri and March 14; the vast majority of the Shiites are with the opposition. The final balance in parliament is going to be a function of the vote in the Christian community. Secretary Clinton and Vice President Biden came to Beirut both to send a message that if the Lebanese chose to vote for the opposition, and particularly if the Christians chose to vote for Michel Aoun, and help the opposition score a victory, then this will have very negative consequences for Lebanon.

There is very little doubt that the United States, while it wouldn't cut its diplomatic relations with Lebanon, would certainly downgrade them. They sent the world a message that Lebanon would find itself isolated even within the Arab world because countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but particularly the Gulf countries who have economically helped Lebanon, would be much less likely to help Lebanon in the event of an opposition victory. The message they were bringing is a fairly simple one. If Lebanon votes right, as they see it, then there would be advantages to Lebanon. After all, Biden was the highest U.S. official sent to Lebanon in decades [Vice President George H.W. Bush visited in 1983]. The idea was we're willing to help you and we're willing to help you at a high level. Remember also that even before the Clinton and Biden visits, President Obama called President Suleiman on February 27.

Has there been much polling of Christians or of the whole electorate?

There has been polling, but the polling is inaccurate. I don't think that ultimately one should rely too much on polling. The vote in the Christian community is volatile, it can go either way. There is a large percentage of Christians who don't necessarily like Michel Aoun, and who don't necessarily like March 14 but who are in a way undecided, who don't know who they should vote for, or who in a way would vote for both sides. Lebanon has a list system so you can mix your candidates. But by and large, many Christians find themselves lost between March 14 and the Aounists.

Why is Michel Aoun, a former general, a leader of Lebanon in the past, throwing in his lot with Hezbollah?

Aoun is basically an opportunist. He wants to be president of the republic, and he failed at that when the Doha agreement [worked out by Qatar to end fighting in Lebanon] in May of last year stipulated that the president would be Michel Suleiman. This was a very bitter defeat for Aoun whose entire strategy, since he came back to Lebanon in 2005 from exile, was that he would become president. He now believes that if he can get a decisive victory he would have one of the largest blocs in parliament. He feels that would give him the legitimacy to constitutionally challenge Michel Suleiman's election and take his place.

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