Lebanese Elections Part 1: Understanding the Politics

8 MINS READJun 4, 2009 | 15:07 GMT

Editor's Note: This is the first of a three-part series on Lebanon's upcoming parliamentary elections. Click to read Part 2 and Part 3.

Lebanon will hold parliamentary elections June 7. In a country which is an artificial entity in geopolitical terms and rife with sectarian divisions, the atmosphere leading up to elections is often volatile. To survive in such a system, Lebanese politicians must constantly watch their backs, try to choose the winning side and be prepared to frequently change sides within a fractious web of alliances.


Lebanese citizens will go to the polls June 7 to vote in long-anticipated parliamentary elections. Lebanese elections tend to reveal the country's true nature as a place where guns intimidate, religion dominates and money speaks volumes. The results of these elections will also be felt well beyond Lebanon's borders, as Syria, Iran, the United States, France and Saudi Arabia battle for influence among the country's sundry factions.

The Geopolitics of Lebanon

Any analysis of Lebanese elections must begin with the understanding that Lebanon, in geopolitical terms, is an artificial entity. The country was carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire by the French in the 1916 Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement that, in 1920, gave Paris a mandate over Greater Syria — a region that at the time was roughly bounded by the Taurus Mountains in the north, the Mediterranean coastline to the west, the Golan Heights to the south and the Syro-Arabian desert belt to the east.

Modern-day Syria and Lebanon emerged in 1943 upon the demise of the French mandate, but the Syria-Lebanon border that splits the two countries along the Anti-Lebanon mountain range is more or less invisible to the Syrian eye. The notion of a Greater Syria never died in Damascus. As far as the Syrian political elite is concerned, Lebanon is Syria's vital economic outlet to the Mediterranean basin and the Syrian writ of state naturally extends into Lebanese territory. When viewed in this light, any U.S., French or Saudi calls for an end to Syrian meddling in Lebanon defy the geopolitical realities of the region.

Internally, Lebanon became a hodgepodge of factions whose religious and ethnic fault lines overshadowed any sense of loyalty to the nation-state. The French had put their stock in Lebanon's Maronite Christian population concentrated in Mount Lebanon, but needed the predominantly Sunni and Shiite coastal cities and Bekaa Valley to make the country economically viable. Without a dominant group to impose its will over the other factions, Lebanon was a country destined to be engulfed in civil war, politically paralyzed and preyed on by outside powers.

Sectarian Politics

Lebanon's sectarian-based political structure clearly illustrates the fractious nature of Lebanese geopolitics. The Lebanese government has deliberately avoided conducting a census in 77 years (mostly due to Maronite Christians' fears that their votes will be outstripped by the majority Muslim population), so estimates on the ethnic and religious makeup of the country are extremely hard to come by.

The country officially recognizes 17 religious sects, and the CIA estimated in 1986 that 41 percent of the country is Shiite, 27 percent Sunni, 16 percent Maronite, 7 percent Druze, 5 percent Greek Orthodox and 3 percent Greek Catholic. On the other hand, a voting list from the Lebanese interior ministry shows the number of registered voters for these elections pretty evenly split among Sunnis with 27.2 percent, Shia with 26.7 percent and Maronite Christians with 20.9 percent. As part of the Lebanese confessional system, the parliament must be divided equally between Christians and Muslims. Once the parliament is formed, the ruling triumvirate is split by law among a Maronite president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shiite speaker of the parliament, while the other main Cabinet positions — the interior, defense, finance and foreign ministries — are divided among a Maronite Christian, a Greek Orthodox, a Shi'i and a Sunni.

Lebanese electoral law also stipulates that voters must return to their ancestral hometowns to vote, so Sunnis, Shia and Christians are forced to vote in areas where their sect forms a majority. A great deal of political horse-trading, bribery and intimidation is required to sustain such a fractious and sectarian style of governance. To survive in such a system, any one faction must always watch its back, do its best to pick the winning side and be prepared to flip rampantly between alliances.

The Coming Elections

The June 7 elections will pit the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance against the Western-backed March 14 alliance led by Saad al-Hariri, son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri whose assassination in 2005 drove Syrian troops out of Lebanon. The media often describes these two coalitions as pro-Western and anti-Syrian factions, but like most things Lebanese the situation is much more complex than that.

The March 8 coalition, named after a rally held March 8, 2005, to demonstrate support for Syria after the al-Hariri assassination, is led by Hezbollah (Shiite), Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's Amal movement (Shiite), Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (Maronite Christian) and Suleiman Franjieh's Marada Movement (Maronite Christian).

The March 14 coalition, named after a massive rally held March 14, 2005, following the al-Hariri assassination, currently forms the majority in the Lebanese government. The coalition is led by Saad al-Hariri's Future Movement (Sunni), Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party (Druze), Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces (Maronite Christian) and Amin Gemayel's Phalange Party (Maronite Christian).

The breakdown of the coalitions illustrates just how fractured Lebanon's political parties are, with divisions digging deep into each of the various sects.

The Maronites are split between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, largely due to years of Syrian pressure and Aoun's contentious decision to enter into a political alliance of convenience with Hezbollah upon his return from exile in 2005. Aoun has only one aim: to return to the presidency. The Christian firebrand leader risked alienating a large portion of his support base and reigniting intra-Christian rivalries when he joined up with Hezbollah, but he saw that the best way to get back into the game was to befriend the Syrians and use Hezbollah's clout to raise his political stature.

The Aoun-Hezbollah alliance is a bitter and trying one, with each side constantly threatening to abandon the other. But for now, they need each other and have reached a deal to help advance each other's political agendas. The deal, which operates under the assumption that Hezbollah will make considerable parliamentary gains in these elections, calls for Hezbollah to use its voting power to help push Aoun to the forefront of the Lebanese political system. Part of the plan to help carve out a political space for Aoun involves a Hezbollah plot to discredit Lebanon's current president, Michel Suleiman, who has attempted to strike a careful balance between the Syrians, Saudis, French and Americans. Hezbollah is extremely wary of Suleiman's long-term intentions, particularly on the issue of disarming Lebanese militia groups, and is happy to work with Aoun (at least for now) on uprooting Suleiman.

In return, Aoun has pledged to do his part to help Hezbollah defeat its long-term Shiite rival, Amal movement leader Berri. Amal was the preponderant Shiite force in Lebanon until the rise of Hezbollah in the early 1980s. Since then, Hezbollah, with the help of its regional proxies, has worked to undermine Berri's movement among Lebanese Shia. Hezbollah now feels confident that its political wing will be able to wrest the parliamentary speaker position from Berri in these upcoming elections. The most likely Hezbollah candidate for speaker of the house is Mohammed Raad, current head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc.

The Sunnis in the March 14 camp are also undergoing a significant split ahead of the elections. Since Rafik al-Hariri's assassination, Saad al-Hariri and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, both of whom are closely tied to the Saudi royal family, worked together in resisting Syrian influence in Beirut. But al-Hariri's relationship with Suleiman has deteriorated in recent months, as al-Hariri has begun viewing Suleiman as a threat to his leadership. While tensions are growing between al-Hariri and Suleiman, al-Hariri is also struggling in balancing between the more secularist Sunni Beirutis and the Salafist movements that have given him considerable support over the past four years.

Jumblatt's Druze movement, meanwhile, is unsurprisingly bouncing back and forth between the coalitions in search of the best deal. Following the al-Hariri assassination, Jumblatt was the most vociferous member of the March 14 coalition in condemning Syrian meddling in Lebanon. When the tide started shifting in Syria's favor again, Jumblatt began making conciliatory statements toward Hezbollah. Fearing that Jumblatt would switch sides yet again, Saudi King Abdullah personally invited Jumblatt and Druze Cabinet member Ghazi Aridi to Saudi Arabia, where Jumblatt is believed to have received a generous financial sum to stick with the March 14 coalition. Needless to say, Jumblatt is quiet for now.

Lebanon's byzantine maze of political alliances will come to light June 9 as each faction attempts to weave its way to the finish line. This is an election with high stakes not only for the Lebanese political powers that be, but also for the number of regional players that have staked a claim in this explosive region.

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