Lebanon's elections: reading the signs

Hazem Saghieh
12 June 2009

A national election is usually an occasion for reviewing the performance of a governing party, endorsing it for another term or (in the event of a change) announcing an emergent movement endorsed by popular legitimacy. Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based paper al-Hayat

Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy include:
"Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2008)

"Lebanon's election, no solution" (20 June 2005)

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

"How the European left supports Lebanon" (14 August 2006)

"Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

"The Arab defeat" (11 June 2007)

"Lebanon's ‘14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008) Such a turning-point is at once a judgment of past policies, an affirmation of the future, and a dissolver of myths. At its democratic best there is a sense of completion about the whole process.

Lebanon's parliamentary election of 7 June 2009 - whose result (against many expectations) confirmed the ruling "March 14" coalition in office, and  left the militant Hizbollah group in opposition - was a successful case-study of this kind. The whole experience was even more remarkable given the flawed pre-election record of the March 14 forces and the fact that Hizbollah's guns overshadowed the electoral process. For elections to take place in the shadow of illegal weapons is rare enough; for the party fighting these weapons to win is an exceptional event that deserves an honoured place in the annals of democracy and electoral processes.

The falling myths

The election was a healthy exercise too in the way that the majority of the Lebanese were able to deconstruct and move beyond many of the political myths that had grown up around them since the astonishing year of 2005 - when (on 14 February) their former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, the "cedar revolution" was born (with a huge demonstration on 14 March giving birth to the political movement of that name), Syrian troops (in March-April) withdrew from the country, and (in May-June) the general election awarded the new movement victory.  

Among the myths that arose then and can be now be discarded are these four:

* that the electoral result in 2005 was "an emotional reaction" to Rafiq Hariri's killing (allegedly by agents of Syria), without any other political and independence-related content

* that the 2005 outcome was the result of a Syria-imposed electoral law, producing a parliamentary majority "stolen" by March 14's "quadripartite alliance"

* that most Lebanese view their prime minister since July 2005, Fouad Siniora, as inadequate, stupid or through the lens of anger at his economic policies (Siniora's victory in the city of Saida is symbolic in this respect)

* that most Lebanese are content with Hizbollah and its suspension of the country's economic life.

Indeed, what the election reveals about Lebanese attitudes to Hizbollah is crucial. Most of the Lebanese do not feel comfortable with the weapons of the ‘‘resistance'', but rather fear them. They don't consider the war with Israel of  July-August 2006 a "divine victory" nor Hizbollah's military advance on 7 May 2008 "a glorious day". This lazy discourse, and the alleged consensus around the ‘‘resistance", also fell with a deafening crash in the 7 June 2009 election.

The next chapter  

The elections have also revealed about the Christians of Lebanon, whose core regions have in recent years witnessed the fiercest political battles. Two trends stand out. First, their disillusion with the emptiness of their elites had led many of them to transfer their support to General Michel Aoun as their primary leader. That this process is now in reverse is reflected in the failure of the main figures of the pro-Aoun Tayyar (Issam Abu Jamra, Jubran Bassil) and the Takattul political bloc (Elie Skaff) - as well as in the tight contests even in most of the districts where the "Aounists" eventually won. True, Michel Aoun won in areas such as Kesserwan, but his losses in Beirut I and Zahleh and the reduction of Zghorta to a northern redoubt are equally important. Since Michel Aoun played a dramatic role as a Christian who provided political "cover" for Hizbollah, the downward trend of his support reduces this current. 

Second, there is more emphasis on a sort of "traditionalist" view of Lebanon. This traditionalism is hardly congenial to anyone aiming for a democratic, plural and secular society; but it is assuredly better than turning the country into a launch-pad for small rockets and a welcome-mat for bigger rockets.

But even a peaceful and myth-breaking election leaves ambiguity in its wake. The democratic announcement by the majority of Lebanese of their opinion and convictions is one thing - the ability to take power in their own hands is another. Now, more than ever, democracy and ‘‘resistance'' seem to be at opposite ends. Most Lebanese will continue to feel that no matter what they decide, the weapons will remain pointed at them. The next chapter in their life will be dominated by how they deal with this issue and its regional complexities.

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Also in openDemocracy on Lebanon's travails:

Roger Scruton, "Lebanon: the missing perspective" (20 July 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: war takes root" (3 August 2006)

Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon" (22 August 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: the war after the war" (12 October 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Lebanon: slices of life" (31 October 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award" (13 February 2007)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh" (11 May 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "Washington in Lebanon and Palestine: fatal manipulation" (6 August 2007)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon divided" (7 August 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Lebanon: short memory, system failure" (25 September 2007)

Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state" (21 May 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide" (20 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon at the crossroads" (5 June 2009)

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