Lebanon's Western-backed "March 14" bloc appears to have defeated an opposition bloc led by Hezbollah in a much-anticipated electoral showdown, retaining its parliamentary majority. The result, in which March 14 reportedly won sixty-eight to seventy seats in the 128-seat parliament, gave some Western analysts hope that the influence of Hezbollah, and its Iranian and Syrian patrons, has suffered a blow. Among other problems, a Hezbollah victory would have jeopardized Lebanese cooperation with an international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Analysis in a front-page Wall Street Journal report concluded: "The push back of Hezbollah is seen as providing President Barack Obama more diplomatic space to pursue his high-profile Arab-Israeli peace initiative. It could also lend Mr. Obama more time to pursue his diplomatic outreach toward Tehran."
Yet the leader of the March 14 bloc, Saad Hariri, Rafik's son, must still work to form a government. Both Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement, an influential party led by former army chief Michel Aoun, have indicated that they would like to join a unity government with Hariri's supporters. Several days ahead of the vote the Washington Institute's David Schenker anticipated that the domestic status quo would continue even if the Western-backed coalition won. He wrote: "[A] pro-West majority would still be limited in its ability to effect policy changes by virtue of the opposition's "blocking third" in the cabinet and its military prowess. (March 14 maintains that following the elections, the Doha Agreement, which mandated the blocking-third arrangement, will be void, but [Hezbollah] is sure to protest.)"
Mohamad Bazzi, CFR adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, says it could take several weeks or even as long as three months to form a government and whether Hezbollah and its allies get to maintain their "blocking third" will be one of "the most important issues on the table." In a CFR interview, Bazzi says if Hezbollah loses its veto power in the cabinet, it could lead to a political crisis. "The flip side of all this is when one side has that veto power, it makes it very difficult for things to get done. Then also there is this tradition of ruling by consensus in Lebanon and that often makes it difficult for major changes to get put through because often one community is able to stop major decisions or major laws or major changes because it refuses to go along with them."
Reuters has a feature outlining the reaction of different Lebanese political leaders to the reported results.
Mideast expert Paul Salem of the Carnegie Endowment writes in Foreign Policy that losing might actually serve Hezbollah's purposes. Here's an excerpt of his argument about why a Hezbollah-led government would encounter policy challenges:
"Although most states would likely maintain some modicum of relations with a Hezbollah-led government -- unlike with the Hamas government in Gaza -- political, military, and economic support would decline dramatically. The United States would curtail support for the Lebanese military -- almost $500 million since 2006. European countries might suspend large-scale economic aid. And Saudi Arabia and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which have been strong backers of fiscal and monetary stability in Lebanon, would scale down their public and private investments ... If international support were to decline, it would spell serious trouble for a Lebanon already struggling to avoid widespread unemployment and economic collapse. In addition, despite its populist rhetoric, a Hezbollah-led government would be hard-pressed to broaden social programs and reduce taxes."
This Backgrounder explains the structure of Lebanon's vote and profiles its major players.
CFR experts Mohamad Bazzi and Steven Cook discuss the importance of the Lebanese vote for the Obama administration's new plans for engagement in the Middle East.