Perplexing alliances in Lebanon as parliament elections near

Hassan Al-Qishawi , Thursday 3 May 2018

As Lebanon gears up for its first parliamentary elections in a decade, confusing alliances are being formed

Saad and the late Rafiq al-Hariri
Campaign posters of Lebanese Prime Minister and candidate for parliamentary elections Saad al-Hariri and his father, assassinated Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, hang on Ferris Wheel in Beirut, Lebanon May 3, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

Lebanon is gearing up for parliamentary elections slated for 6 May, with members of the country’s large expatriate community having already cast their votes in elections that have been seeing complex and intertwining alliances.

The last time Lebanese politicians competed for seats in parliament was in June 2009. Nine years and a new electoral law later, three main factors have come into play.

First, the elections are being held after the ratification of a law granting Lebanese nationality to the offspring of expatriates, pushed for by the Alawite Free Patriotic Movement headed by Foreign Minister Jibran Bassel.

The law may attract more Christian voters, since most Lebanese abroad are Christians.

Second, the elections are being held under a controversial party-list proportional representation system, which it is believed could increase the number of seats held by the 8 March Alliance led by the Shia group Hizbullah in parliament.

In the previous individual-list system the stakes were higher for the 14 March Coalition, especially the Future Movement which consistently gained more seats in Sunni majority constituencies. Sunni opposition forces close to Hizbullah fared weakly when the individual-list system was in place.

The third factor is the use of a preferential voting system in which each voter votes for one of the competing lists and then is entitled to cast a preferential vote for a single candidate from the same list.

The preferential vote can only be applied if the candidate hails from the same district or constituency the voter comes from, and it is expected to benefit Christian voters who do not form the majority in many constituencies.

Lebanon’s legislative elections are bound to witness intertwining, if not contradictory, alliances.

While tensions have lessened between old enemies the 8 March Alliance spearheaded by Hizbullah and the 14 March Coalition led by the Future Movement, there has been more bickering within each camp.

Days before the deadline for registration, Lebanon’s political forces were engaged in negotiations with potential allies to finalise their lists.

Mustafa Alloush, a former MP and member of the political bureau of the Future Movement, described these best when he said they resembled short-term marriages.

The negotiations meant that each party was trying to secure the biggest number of parliamentary seats, especially as some of the big players knew that the new electoral law would not necessarily work in their favour, he said.

Many observers believe the new alliances constitute the end of the 8 March and 14 March camps that have dominated Lebanon’s political scene since the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005.

The alliances have gathered opposites together and forced allies apart. The dogma now is the pursuit of “parliamentary interests,” even if this means alliances between liberals and conservatives, civil society and government figures, and individual candidates and their political enemies.

Parliamentary interests must come first.

The strongest alliance includes Hizbullah and the Amal Movement headed by Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri.

However, tensions are clouding the relationship between Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement, Hizbullah’s ally, headed by Bassel.

While Hizbullah remains on good terms with both parties, the unease between Berri and Bassel is undermining the alliance, though not yet to the extent of skirmishing over constituencies.

One of the most prominent of the new alliances forged in the light of the rapprochement between Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri is that between the 8 March’s Free Patriotic Movement and the 14 March’s Future Movement.

The latter has not appealed to friends of the Future Movement Berri and Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party, leading to tensions between the latter and the Future Movement, and consequently also between the Amal Movement and the Future Movement.

Some observers also point to impending unease between the Marada Movement headed by Suleiman Frangieh and the Future Movement because of the alliance between the latter and the Free Patriotic Movement in one of the country’s northern constituencies.

The Future Movement sees no problem in forging new alliances, since its parliamentary interests must come first. It broke off its alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement after the latter refused to abandon the Lebanese Catholic parliamentary seat in the constituency of Saida.

These tensions will naturally resolve themselves, and Berri, Jumblatt and Frangieh are working on counter-plans, betting that Hizbullah will not be happy to see its ally Bassel working closely with its enemy Al-Hariri.

The repercussions will not only be domestic since Lebanon needs international support, and this is stirring up Hizbullah.

The more conventional alliance between the Free Movement and the Lebanese Forces was shaken after the latter’s chairman, Samir Geagea, approved of Saad Al-Hariri’s “resignation” announced in Riyadh last year, and later rescinded, igniting Al-Hariri’s wrath.

This, however, has not stood in the way of pragmatic alliances between the two. Al-Hariri, as head of the Future Movement, sent minister Ghattas Khouri to meet with Geagea, who later announced that the Future Movement and the Lebanese Forces, together with the Progressive Socialist Party, would run on the same lists in the Baabda and Al-Shouf constituencies and that they would be discussing further alliances in other districts.

The Lebanese Forces has sought to forge an alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement despite their differences after the Lebanese Forces helped Aoun to the presidency.

The Lebanese Forces and Aoun were previously arch-enemies in competing to lead Lebanon’s Christians.

The expatriate voting in the elections has also been mired in controversy in the light of accusations directed at Bassel, Aoun’s son-in-law, having to do with the leaking of data.

Bassel has denied the accusations, saying this was “available to all the electoral campaigns.”

Hizbullah was also in the line of fire after its followers attacked an anti-Shia candidate, journalist Ali Al-Amin. Interior Minister Nehad Al-Mashnouk said the attacks were a “violation of Lebanon’s democracy.”

The divisions on Lebanon’s political scene are likely to further sour the formation of any new government after the elections are over.

With Berri sure to preside over the parliament, obstacles will arise when it is time to assign ministers, especially if each party does not win its previous seats.

* This story was first published under the title 'Perplexing Alliances in Lebanon' in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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