Tag Archives: Lebanese elections

It’s that flippin’ Jumblatt again!

by Sune Haugbolle.

Summer’s almost gone, and CUMINet is coming back to life. And so, it seems, is Lebanese politics. Walid Jumblatt – the eternal flip-flopping turncoat of Lebanese politics – yesterday announced that he is parting ways with the March 14 coalition. Jumblatt, who has been hinting his departure for a while, chose an awkward moment to announce it, just days before a new cabinet was expected to be sworn in.

Jumblatt’s latest volte-face raises an interesting questions: how many times can a Lebanese leader change sides before losing credibility? Well, Jumblatt may just have made a 180 too many – he has certainly made a few through the years.  The problem is that his influence is not what it once was on the Lebanese scene. So while his latest move is obviously bad news for March 14, it may not sound the death knell for the tattered coalition. They still have the International Tribunal to fight for and too keep them united – not a small thing, and not an objective Jumblatt’s departure is likely to change.

What are his reasons for leaving? The first and most important is security. Jumblatt has seen the return of Syria as a powerful hegemon in Lebanon since the end of the Bush era, and even before. Courtesy of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Syria, Damascus has moved decisively out of the cold. In that sense Jumblatt is not foreshadowing anything this time (an ability observers often praise him for), but merely reacting to well-established facts.

It is doubtful that we will see Jumblatt kiss and make up in Damascus any time soon, given the amount of garbage (‘Nazis’) he managed to throw at Bashar al-Asad and his regime over the last four years. But he will be hoping that at least he will not be seen as an arch-enemy of Damascus any longer.  

Furthermore, being surrounded by Shiite neighbours, his Shuf Mountains fiefdom needs neighbourly relations with an ever stronger Hizbollah to improve rapidly. And he knows that relinquishing the tough stance on Hizbollah’s weapons propagated by some of his, now former, allies in March 14, is the ticket that will allow him to enter into friendlier relations with the Shiite party.   

It is not yet clear where exactly Jumblatt will place himself in the, now re-shuffled, jigsaw of Lebanese politics. But the most likely move would be to join President Suleiman and possibly Nabih Berri in a third block the role of which will be to mediate when March 14 (or what is left of it) and March 8 are at loggerheads in a new coalition government.

Due to Jumblatt’s announcement cabinet seats, which were ostensibly all but lined up on Monday, will now have to be reshuffled, and a new government may not be formed before the end of this week or early next week.

The Lebanese Elections: Outcome and Analysis

by Sune Haugbolle.

Here are my two cents on last Sunday’s Lebanese elections:

Saad al-Hariri’s March 14 coalition of Sunni, Druze and Christian parties retained control of parliament in elections on June 7, winning 71 of 128 seats.

The margin of the win – 68 plus three from associates against 57 for the opposing March 8 coalition – came as a surprise. The result effectively reproduces the parliament of the last four years, condemning Hizbollah and its allies to another electoral period in opposition. The prospect of a continued pro-Western government in Lebanon could aid US attempts to create momentum in regional peace negotiations.

The result
Despite reports from international election observers of widespread vote-buying, Lebanon’s 2009 parliamentary elections were conducted relatively freely, fairly and quietly. Big crowds queued at polling stations for hours, and a sometimes hateful tone emerged in the electoral campaign. Yet heavy security ensured that voting took place without any major violent incidents. The peaceful picture was somewhat marred by gunfights near Tripoli yesterday evening between rival supporters.

Voter turnout surpassed 54%, a record in Lebanese history and 10% higher than the fiercely fought 2005 elections. The number signals a growing popular belief in Lebanon’s democracy since 2005, despite political unrest since the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, contrasting with poor showings at elections in the 1990s and early 2000s when Lebanon was under Syrian tutelage.

The high turnout may also have helped the March 14 coalition clinch a majority in key districts — Beirut I, Batroun, Koura, Besharreh and Tripoli. Elsewhere results were much as expected: March 14 dominated Beirut, the Shuf, most of north Lebanon, Western Bekaa and Zahle. Hizbollah and fellow Shia party Amal made clean sweeps in the south Lebanon districts of Nabatieh, Marjayoun, Hasbaya, Tyre, Bint Jubeil and Zahrani, while former General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) won all seats in the districts of Kesrouan, Byblos, Baabda and Jezzine.

Hizbollah officials have reacted graciously in defeat. The party won all eleven seats which it contested and can therefore argue that it won the elections even if March 8 did not. It will also feel that the result does not change the status quo. It will therefore insist on a blocking third in a unity government, allowing it to continue to obstruct the passing of legislation if necessary. Furthermore, Hizbollah will continue to make clear that it will not tolerate any questioning of its role as a resistance party, the legitimacy of its weapons arsenal, and the fact that Israel is an enemy state.

As several Lebanese commentators have suggested, the outcome may suit it better than winning a majority, which would have made it the governing party and forced it to produce results. Instead it now retains its well-rehearsed role as the critical oppositional voice, which may explain the rather low-key reception of the result.

Christian battle
For March 8’s other main constituent, Aoun’s FPM, the defeat will generate more soul-searching Aoun lost in key districts to rival Christian leaders from the Phalange and Lebanese Forces parties. This is the second major political defeat to Christian rivals for Aoun, having already lost the presidency to Michel Suleiman last year.

Aoun must face that he has failed to persuade the majority of Lebanon’s Christians with his programme based on anti-corruption, secularism and bridge-building with Lebanon’s Shia parties, amid widespread scepticism about Hizbollah. The defeat could lead to an internal coup in the FPM, whose younger leaders have previously voiced unhappiness with ‘the General’.

Unity government
As leader of the majority party in parliament, Saad al-Hariri will be given the task of leading negotiations for a new government and set the direction of national policy. He will have no other choice than to aim for another all-embracing ‘unity government’, the third since 2005.

The key question is the extent to which March 14 will now use their relatively comfortable majority in negotiations. Hariri has signalled his unwillingness to grant the opposition veto power by giving them one-third of the seats in the new government, reasoning that it will lead to more paralysis of the kind that has stalled political life and lawmaking for long periods since 2005.

Hizbollah and its allies, on the other hand, will make veto power an absolute demand, arguing that the terms of the Doha agreement that resolved the crisis in May 2008 are still valid. Another problem is the post of Prime Minister. Following the successful elections and an electoral campaign which has seen him assume real leadership for the first time, Hariri may feel that now is his moment to seek the premiership. March 8 will likely oppose this, preferring a friendly candidate such as former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, or a more neutral figure like outgoing Premier Fouad Siniora.

These points of disagreement could lead to a drawn-out government formation process. In a worst-case scenario, Lebanon could be without a government for months, increasing the risk of violent clashes, and bringing back the fundamental schisms over which Lebanon’s political life has been log jammed for the last four years, namely Hizbollah’s weapons, support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and whether Lebanon should ally itself with Syria and Iran, or with the West and its Sunni Arab allies.

Regional context
As always in Lebanon, much depends on the regional context. US President Barack Obama’s less confrontational approach and nascent Syrian-Saudi rapprochement may already have contributed to the calmer atmosphere. If the Obama administration’s regional peace efforts gain momentum, and the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria continues, a regional thaw could rub off on Lebanon.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell will be in Beirut on June 14 for talks with Suleiman. A win for Mir Hossein Moussavi in this week’s Iranian elections and renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts could generate further optimism.

Such progress would lessen the mistrust between political parties in Lebanon. Hizbollah could accept Hariri as prime minister and even relinquish the blocking third in exchange for guarantees regarding its weapons. At the same time, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has been moving towards rapprochement with Syria and Hizbollah in recent months, could become a crucial bridging figure. And if all goes well, national defence strategy negotiations aimed at defining a national role for Hizbollah’s weapons could be resumed.

Policy challenges
Suleiman stressed yesterday that a new government must focus on political and administrative reforms. His comments reflected fear that a new unity government could be just as sclerotic as the previous ones. After extended periods of political stalemate in the last four years, Lebanon faces a long list of overdue social and economic policy challenges.

First, there is the electoral law, which was amended last year but is still far from meeting international standards. It requires changes in order to secure a democratic transfer of power in the future.

Then there are overdue reforms of the judiciary, which is needed in order to tackle widespread corruption. And most pressingly, despite Lebanon’s success in riding out the international financial crisis, large sectors of society need to be integrated better in the economy through better education and job creation. Work is also needed to begin to bring down Lebanon’s 42 billion dollar foreign debt. All this will require the immediate attention of the new cabinet.

In conclusion, this election result leaves the balance of parliament unchanged and Lebanon’s underlying problems unaddressed, but has strengthened both the (perception of the) country’s democratic institutions and the legitimacy of the March 14 government. The formation of a unity government is likely to be delayed by fundamental disagreement over foreign policy and national security, but could be aided by any breakthrough in US peace efforts in the region.

The Hariri tribunal could spell end of quiet for Lebanon

by Sune Haugbolle.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon – the international court established to try the suspected killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri – opened on March 1 in The Hague.

We shouldn’t expect too much dirt to materialise for a while. But in the long run, what will the tribunal mean to regional politics? And how will it influence Lebanese politics leading up to the June elections. Here is my analysis.

The UN Security Council unilaterally set up the tribunal in 2007 after the speaker of the Lebanese parliament refused to call a session to ratify the statutes to create it.

It is housed in the Netherlands, which already is home to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal and International Criminal Court, primarily for security reasons.

As the first Middle Eastern court of its kind, the tribunal will use Lebanese law applied by a mixture of Lebanese and international judges. Its heaviest punishment is life imprisonment.

The court’s first act is likely to be a request for the Lebanese government to hand over four generals held in custody since 2005, as it has been given 60 days to transfer all arrested suspects from Beirut to The Hague. On February 25, three other suspects were freed by the Lebanese judicial authorities in Beirut. The three are considered ‘small fish’ who may have assisted in carrying out the crime but, unlike the generals, played no alleged role in planning it. Although they may later be summoned by the court, letting these potentially incriminating persons go is widely seen as a gesture by the Lebanese government towards Syria.

Hizbollah has called for the four generals to be released on grounds that the investigation is unfinished. This claim was rejected by the Lebanese investigating judge Sakr Sakr as well as Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

The spat over the suspects last week signals the re-emergence of mounting tension brought on by the Hariri tribunal as Lebanon looks ahead to parliamentary elections scheduled for June 7. So far, the country has remained remarkably quiet. Since the Doha Accords in May, President Michel Suleiman has been largely successful in subduing the feud between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, which threatened stability in the country several times between 2005 and 2008. This quiet period could now be over.

Days before the launch of the tribunal, Saad al-Hariri signalled that his Future Movement will not share power in a unity government if Hizbollah and its allies win the election. Although other March 14 leaders may still favour a power-sharing agreement, Hariri’s remarks suggested that elections are unlikely to produce a repeat of the broad unity governments that have dominated in Lebanon since the 2005 elections.

March 14 leaders such as Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea have openly stated their expectation that the tribunal will lead to incrimination of Syrian top officials. The return of fiercely anti-Syrian rhetoric to Lebanese politics comes after a period when many leaders appeared to be accepting a Syrian-Lebanese rapprochement. It will have a polarising effect on Lebanese politics.

As the court begins its work, political comments will provide fuel for disagreement and add to the expected rise in sectarian tensions surrounding the elections.

In a worst-case scenario, victory for a Hizbollah-led coalition in the June elections could put the Lebanese government’s full support for the tribunal in jeopardy. The court has a budget for this year of 40.3 million euros (50.7 million dollars) of which Lebanon pays 49%. If Hizbollah was indeed to abandon Lebanese support for the tribunal, it would spark a serious political crisis. However, it is probably more likely that Hizbollah would stick with the tribunal. 

The first UN investigator to investigate the assassination, Detlev Mehlis, has recently, in an interview with al-Hayat, restated his belief that the plot’s complexity suggests that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services played a role. In contrast, his two successors as chief investigator, Serge Brammertz and Daniel Bellemare, have revealed little about the progress of the investigation. However, since a date was set for the court’s opening by Bellemare, who now assumes the role of general prosecutor, it has been clear that the investigation has gathered enough material to begin the process, which will eventually lead to hearings and trials.

Despite the politically explosive content of the case, the actual workings of the court look set to be slow and arduous, for the following reasons:

– The court’s work is likely to take at least four years to finish, and progress may be slow. Robin Vincent, the tribunal’s registrar, has made it clear that formal charges or trials should not be expected before 2011.

– No judges have yet been named and the court still has no rulebook for prosecutors and judges. The appointment of Lebanese judges has been extremely controversial and remains unfinished.

– Syria is unlikely to cooperate and freely hand over suspects, which could slow down the proceedings considerably. Vincent has said that the tribunal could hold trials in absentia, but it is questionable how effective such trials would be.

Despite its likely slow progress, the Hariri court will inevitably throw negative light on Syria. That is particularly troubling for Damascus as it seeks to make real the many promises of a speedy thaw with the new US administration.

Western powers expect Syria to work actively against the court and have in response formed an ‘administrative committee’ consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, France and Japan, to ward off diplomatic pressure on the tribunal. The Syrian leadership, for its part, will continue to reject all charges while maintaining a semblance of cooperation with the UN.

While the Hariri court may weaken President Bashar al-Assad’s image as a moderate whose central position is vital to US Middle East policy, he will seek to balance the pressure by stressing Syria’s ties to Hamas, seen as crucial for Palestinian reconciliation and a renewal of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks; to Hizbollah, which will emerge in a new and more official role in charge of Lebanon’s government if it wins the June elections; and to Iran, whose nuclear file tops the Obama administration’s list of pressing issues in the Middle East. Syria, as always, will play the “centrally placed” card. And get away with it, most likely.

The more troubling question is how polarising the tribunal will be in Lebanon here and now. Certainly, the results of the Hariri tribunal will not materialise for several years, and only when they do can we start to debate its regional influence. But there is a strong chance that its effects in the short term will be to polarise Lebanese politics and hinder the formation of a unity government after the June elections.


For those of you in Copenhagen, I will be speaking about truth and reconciliaiton in the Middle East today, here.