June 9, 2009

Lebanese Forces supporters celebrate in Ashrafieh (AP)

How would you interpret the results of yesterday’s elections?

I think they’re important in several respects. First, it’s important to note that these are the first parliamentary elections to take place in Lebanon that are truly free of any sort of Syrian influence since before the civil war. While the last elections took place after the Syrian military withdrawal, they were still undertaken using an old electoral law that had significant Syrian influence in it. So that’s point number one. Point number two, it does offer an important look into Lebanese dynamics and clearly shows some sense of concern among some communities in Lebanon with Hezbollah’s power, and I think that’s why we saw March 14 emerge victorious from this vote. Many analysts, myself included, felt the vote would be much closer. The fact that March 14 did as well as it did, scoring 71 seats in the parliament, suggests an important shift among many in the Christian community who had previously backed General Michel Aoun.

In the lead-up, many people thought that March 8 would actually do marginally better. What do you think led to that flip from expectations to results?

It’s still early and it’s hard to know, but I would count a few factors. One, perhaps the most important, would be the negative repercussions of the violence last May, when Hezbollah opted to turn its arms on the Lebanese people. I think this had a very significant impact on both the Christian community and the Sunni community. In the case of the Christians, they were swing voters in this election, and it’s clear that more of them opted to vote for the March 14 coalition as opposed to the March 8 bloc, so that was an important factor.

Hezbollah’s war in 2006 with Israel was another factor, where people were growing increasingly concerned that Hezbollah had taken reckless decisions that dragged the entire country into war, taking decisions that have to do with national defense and national sovereignty into its own hands. I think that those were two very important factors that led people to decide that Hezbollah needed to be somewhat reined in.

Do you think that voter turnout was a major factor in the results?

Voter turnout was significant. Apparently, it was about 54 percent, and it was probably the highest voter turnout on record for a Lebanese election. It was important that so many Lebanese opted to take part in the election. And it clearly had an impact in some of the battleground districts, like in Zahle, where a number of Sunnis came out to vote in high numbers and certainly in the Christian battleground districts where ultimately the election’s outcome was going to be decided. So yes, I do believe that voter turnout was an important factor in the election.

So what happens now? How is a new government formed and do you have any sense of what it might look like?

Well, the next step of course is that March 14 will select its candidate for prime minister, and in all likelihood that will be Saad Hariri, the head of the Mustaqbal (Future) party. The most important step, though, will be the formation of the government. And here things get a lot trickier. Now, it’s important for stability in Lebanon to have a national consensus government that brings in members of the opposition, members of the March 8 bloc, to participate. And March 14 members have certainly indicated their willingness to do that. However, Hezbollah, as a leading member of the March 8 bloc, is continuing to insist that it have a blocking veto in the government. And this is something that in the past, March 14 has refused to give, and has said, with respect to the current government, that they would not allow a blocking veto to Hezbollah. So this could set Lebanon up for a period of dangerous political paralysis if they are not able to figure out a way to form a consensus that includes elements from both March 14 and March 8.

What role, if any, did outside actors play in the elections?

Well, it’s Lebanon, so outside actors always have a role to play. But I think, on one level, we have to be careful not to exaggerate the role of outside players. Many people were talking about this election as being almost an existential battle for Lebanon’s identity; a battle between the West versus Iran and Syria. I think those terms are somewhat exaggerated. Nonetheless, external patrons always play a role in Lebanon. I think the most important role in this case is probably that of money, money flowing in from all sides. And indeed, many have said that this was perhaps the most expensive election per capita on record in Lebanon. So, I think with respect to sending in money, financing, campaigns and so forth, external patrons played a huge roll. Clearly, I think there is also the question of ideological agendas in the background. March 14 coming from one very particular perspective, much more Western-oriented, versus March 8, which is much more closely allied with Iran and Syria. So, that also played a role.

What implications do you think the results have on Lebanese relations with other countries in the region?

Again, I think it’s early to tell. But, my sense is if they [the March 14 coalition] are able to form a consensus government, then we will see a Lebanon that is more stable, and that this will then have some implications for the region as well. On the other hand, the other question is what impact will the neighboring countries have on Lebanon’s stability. And here it’s essential that broader efforts at a comprehensive Middle East peace be undertaken. Because ultimately, Lebanon is hostage to tensions in the region. So if there is progress on that front, coupled with a consensus government formed in Lebanon, then I think the region could be in for a period of greater stability.

What do you think the results mean for U.S. policy toward Lebanon?

The results make life a lot less complicated for officials of the U.S. government. In many senses, the government that will be formed in Lebanon will not be significantly different from the previous government. This makes it much easier to continue policies of assistance, including aid to the Lebanese armed forces. So, I think that life is less complicated for U.S. officials as they pursue policies toward Lebanon. Again, I think the key though will be to help encourage this government—March 14—to form a coalition or consensus government and I think that is really going to be the key to stability and longer-term peace in Lebanon.

What impact do you think the results have on the two coalitions and the leading members of those coalitions? On Hezbollah? General Michel Aoun?

I’m not sure it’s going to have a tremendous impact on Hezbollah. They did very well in the races that they ran; they made a conscious decision to run in fewer parliamentary districts. So from their perspective, things went as well as they could have. I do think that General Aoun probably is going to need to go back and significantly rethink what happened. I think the election tells us a lot about the standing of General Aoun and his party, the Free Patriotic Movement, within the Christian community. Clearly much of the popularity that he had in the 2005 election simply did not materialize in this election. So I think that bodes for a period of reflection and understanding better why it is that the party was not able to better connect with the Christian community.

And in terms of March 14?

For March 14, the critical issue is going to be, again, how to ensure that Lebanon not enter another period of instability and violence. And so the challenge will be how to create a national consensus government—what to do to manage its relations with Hezbollah in particular, and March 8 more generally. And again, I think the big question is going to be the one of whether or not to allot what is called a blocking veto to Hezbollah. My sense is if March 14 remains steadfast in its refusal to do that, we will see Lebanon return to a period of a very dangerous political stalemate.

Do you think that the election says anything about efforts at institution building in Lebanon?

The elections offer an important first step toward institution building. There were some minor, but nonetheless important, reforms contained in the electoral law that governed this election, namely the creation of what’s called a supervisory committee on the electoral campaign, which is a kind of a precursor to a full-blown independent electoral commission—as well as campaign finance and media regulations. These are important first steps. Lebanon faces municipal elections next year in 2010, and they will have to vote on a new election law. This electoral law only applies to the current elections; it does not apply to future elections. So they’ll have to go back through the process all over again. And it is hoped that not only these reforms will continue, but more importantly, one of the most important reforms, the creation of preprinted ballots as part of the electoral process, that that reform will also be passed. There are also reforms pending to lower the voting age to 18, and I believe in process already is a reform that would allow for expatriates to vote in the elections from their homes abroad. Currently, Lebanese expatriates must physically return to Lebanon in order to vote—and large numbers of them did for this election. I think that depending on the circumstances, particularly whether or not there is a consensus government formed, this election may offer a very important first step toward greater reform in Lebanon.

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