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Lebanon: Election Update

Author: Esther Pan
June 6, 2005

What's the significance of Lebanon's parliamentary elections?

They are the first democratic elections since 1976, when Syria began a 29-year occupation of its neighbor. The month-long polling could lead to significant democratic advances in the small Middle Eastern nation, says Theodore Kattouf, president of the nonprofit AMIDEAST group and a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and the United Arab Emirates. Other experts are less optimistic. They contend that historic Lebanese rivalries that were submerged by a shared animosity to Syria are now resurfacing, and add that laws enacted under Syrian domination will prevent genuine democratic change.

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Why are elections being held?

They were already scheduled for the end of May, but after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated February 14 in Beirut, weeks of street protests--dubbed the "Cedar Revolution"--forced pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami and his cabinet to resign. Karami briefly resumed his post, but he failed to form a new cabinet and was replaced by Najib Mikati, who is interim prime minister until the election results are in. The demonstrations sparked by Hariri's assassination and international pressure that had been building for several months also prompted Syria to withdraw its tens of thousands of troops and security agents from Lebanon; the withdrawal was completed April 26. Many suspect Damascus orchestrated Hariri's death to silence his increasingly vocal opposition to Syrian domination; Syria denies involvement.

What's at stake in the elections?

Political control of the country. Many experts say the elections, and the government formed after them, will determine whether Lebanon can begin to build a genuine democracy free of Syrian control. Opposition leaders hope their anti-Syria slates can gain as many as 80 seats in the 128-member national assembly. While this figure may be optimistic, opposition candidates will likely pick up about 60 seats, dividing the parliament almost evenly between pro- and anti-Syrian members, says Murhaf Jouejati, director of the Middle East Studies program at George Washington University. As a first priority, Lebanese citizens will likely push for long-promised changes to the country's "confessional system," which allots government posts by religion. "The body politic of Lebanon has changed," Jouejati says. "They want a secular, non-confessional political system."

What is the balance of power in Lebanon's governmental system?

Members of the national assembly choose both the president and the prime minister. The incumbent president is Emile Lahoud, a pro-Syria politician whose term was extended by three years to 2007 by a controversial Syria-backed constitutional amendment last year. After the current voting ends in late June, the newly elected parliamentarians will select a prime minister. Once approved by the president, the prime minister will form a cabinet. Experts say the prime minister and president share power and have roughly equal influence. The prime minister oversees the day-to-day running of the government through his cabinet, while the president controls national security and foreign policy.

How does Lebanon's mix of ethnic and religious groups factor into the election?

Lebanon's population is divided among Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, the Druze sect of Islam, Christians, and others. The country has long wrestled with sectarian strife. At the end of French colonial rule in 1943, the confessional system was set up, dividing the parliament between Christians and Muslims and reserving certain political posts for certain religious groups. After the brutal civil war of 1975-90, experts say Lebanon's sectarian tensions are as strong as ever--though they were muffled by the anti-Syrian sentiments that fueled the Cedar Revolution. Under the confessional system, the country's president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the parliament's speaker must be a Shiite Muslim. Critics say this system perpetuates unfair religious discrimination and are agitating to switch to a secular, one-man, one-vote system in which political posts are open to all.

Who are the main candidates contending for office?

Voters may choose an entire slate of candidates or pick individual candidates from several lists. Some of the prominent politicians running for office include:

  • General Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian and former military officer who led a failed coup against Syria in 1989 and served briefly as Lebanon's prime minister and acting president before fleeing to France. He returned to Lebanon May 7 after 14 years in exile. Aoun is supported by the Free Patriotic Movement as well as many Christians, members of the armed forces, educated youth, and those who favor secular government.
  • Walid Jumblatt, head of the minority Druze community and leader of the Hizb al-Taqadummi al-Ishtiraki, or Progressive Socialist Party, which was founded by his father Kamal Jumblatt in 1949. Jumblatt is a well-known, outspoken, and charismatic politician. In the 1980s, he led a Syria-supported armed militia that fought another Lebanese Christian group that was backed by Israel; after the war ended, he served as a cabinet official in several pro-Syrian Lebanese governments. In 1988, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad moved to consolidate his power in Lebanon, stripping Jumblatt of his portfolio as part of efforts to sideline both him and Rafiq Hariri. Jumblatt responded by leaving government and joining the anti-Syria opposition movement.
  • Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, an armed Shiite militia heavily supported by Iran that has wide support in Lebanon's Shiite south, where it is credited with ending Israeli occupation. Experts say Nasrallah is positioning Hezbollah, which resists all calls to disarm, as the main Shiite political party.
  • Nabih Berri, head of the Amal Party. Berri, a former military man installed by Syria as speaker of the house in 1992, has long been seen as one of Syria's main collaborators in Lebanon. Critics say he has used his post to enrich himself and implement Assad's orders, including signing dozens of questionable agreements that have inextricably tied Lebanon's government and economy to Syria's.
Are there strains in the anti-Syrian opposition?

Yes. Some experts say the demands that dominated the movement to push out Syria--disarming militias, changing the election law, controlling national debt, and dealing with corruption--have fallen by the wayside as some political leaders squabble and make electoral deals.

Are any slates managing to stay united?

Yes, says Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia. He points to the ticket of Saad Hariri, a 35-year-old Sunni who is a son of the slain former prime minister. Notable Christian politicians have joined Hariri's slate. These include Solange Gemayel, the widow of former Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel, who was killed in a 1982 Beirut bombing. "The most encouraging thing from the sectarian standpoint is that the Sunni and Christian communities stayed together" on that ticket, Murphy says.

How are the elections organized?

They began May 29 and will take place over four successive Sundays. Voters in different regions of the country will elect all 128 members of parliament. The Beirut district, with 420,000 eligible voters, voted first. The Shiite-dominated south votes on June 5, the Bekaa Valley and Mount Lebanon on June 12, and the north on June 19.

What were the results of the first round of voting?

Hariri's Tayyar al-Mustaqbal, or Future Tide, ticket won all 19 seats. Only about 28 percent of eligible voters turned out for the ballot, whose results had been widely predicted. After the Hariri slate was announced, several candidates for parliament--including Lahoud's son--withdrew from the race, giving nine members of Hariri's ticket uncontested victories.

What are Hariri's credentials?

He is a billionaire and relative newcomer to Lebanese politics. Still, he is widely seen as the front-runner for the prime-minister post. After graduating from Georgetown University in 1992 with a degree in international business, Hariri ran his father's vast construction company, Saudi Oger. He also has extensive holdings in telecommunications companies across the Middle East and controls a fortune estimated at $1.2 billion. He is married and has two young children.

Why was turnout so low in the first round of voting?

Many Lebanese are disillusioned that, after the excitement of the Cedar Revolution, many politicians considered Syrian collaborators remain in power. Efforts by some opposition leaders, particularly Jumblatt, to form coalitions with pro-Syrian politicians are also viewed by jaded Lebanese citizens as a sign of business as usual, experts say. "They feel that the fix is in," Murphy says. "The elections will be played out ... but how much will change? It depends on how the new government is put together."

Are the elections considered to be free?

Lebanon is allowing international election observers to monitor the ballot, a first in Lebanese history. A European Union delegation of about 100 people monitored voter registration, campaigns, and voting on the first day polls were open. The observers will continue their work until the election is complete. Other international observers for the first round of voting included U.N. Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen and U.S. Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del). No international observers have raised objections about the polling thus far.

What is Lebanon's current election law?

Under a law drawn up in 2000 under Syrian rule, Lebanon is divided into a complex web of districts and provinces designed to give each of 18 different Muslim and Christian sects a fixed number of seats in parliament. These seats were gerrymandered to elect pro-Syrian politicians and do not reflect current demographic realities. Overall, parliamentary seats are divided equally between Muslims and Christians. This is a consequence of the October 1989 Taif Accords that ended the civil war; before that, the confessional system gave Christians 60 percent of parliament and Muslims 40 percent. While Lebanon has not held a census in more than 70 years, most observers agree that Muslims outnumber Christians among the roughly 4.5 million Lebanese. Some estimates put the country at about 70 percent Muslim--of which about half are Shiite, many are Sunni, and a minority are from the Druze sect of Islam--and roughly 30 percent Christian.

How long were Syrian troops in Lebanon?

From 1976 to 2005. Full-scale civil war broke out in April 1975 between the Maronite Christian groups of the Lebanese Front and the Lebanese National Movement, which was made up of left-leaning Muslims who wanted a greater share of political power. Fighting was intense, and in June 1976 the Maronite-dominated government asked for support from Syria.

Syria had previously mounted several failed diplomatic efforts to stop the war. For then-Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad--the late father of current president Bashar al-Assad--the Lebanese conflict presented a range of possibilities, all of them unappealing: sectarian strife spilling over into Syria, which had its own Christian-Muslim tensions; an Israeli invasion of Lebanon; or the establishment of a radical, left-wing Muslim state, if the Lebanese National Movement won. Assad sent in troops to strengthen the Maronite government, which he calculated he could manipulate, according to Mideast analysts. Assad's move earned the wrath of the Muslim world, because he backed the Christian side. Still, small contingents of troops from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Sudan later joined the Syrian-dominated Arab Deterrent Force. The war lasted 15 years.

What caused the war?

Tensions among Lebanon's Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, and the Druze Muslim sect. Those groups had long jockeyed for power and influence. Under the French occupation, which lasted from the end of World War I until independence in 1943, the confessional system evolved. Under this system, Christians had the upper hand in the national assembly. This arrangement bred resentment among Lebanese Muslims, especially as they grew to outnumber Christians.

In the early 1970s, the arrival of Yasir Arafat and thousands of his fellow Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) militants exacerbated Christian-Muslim tensions and swelled the Muslim ranks with thousands of experienced gunmen. Lebanese Muslim groups supported the PLO fighters, recently expelled from Jordan, while Maronite Christian groups worried that PLO raids against Israel would invite retaliation and destabilize Lebanon. Throughout the 1970s, the PLO increasingly used Lebanon as a base from which to attack Israel. Israeli forces invaded in 1978 and 1982; after the second invasion, they remained and occupied a strip of southern Lebanon for nearly 20 years. Egypt, Iraq, and Libya supported Muslim factions in the civil war, while the United States and Israel backed Christian groups. During the long course of the conflict, Syria alternately supported the Christian and Muslim sides.

What ended the war?

The Taif Accords, an agreement brokered by Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, that gave Lebanese Muslims a greater share of political power in Lebanon and formalized "preferred relations" between Lebanon and Syria. Syria's internationally recognized role as "the guarantor of Lebanon's security" was also established in these accords, Jouejati says.

What impact did the Taif Accords have on the Syria-Lebanon relationship?

Experts say the agreement gave Hafez al-Assad effective control over most of Lebanon in return for a promise to maintain internal stability. The Syrians were supposed to set a timetable for a withdrawal of their troops to the Bekaa Valley, a strategic security zone between Syria and Lebanon, by 1992 or another date negotiated with the Lebanese government. Lebanon's pro-Syria government, however, did not request a Syria withdrawal until forced to by massive public pressure in February 2005.

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