Hezbollah is looking to control politics in Beirut. Will the country's electoral system allow for the opposition's power grab? The poster war is intensifying in the run-up to Lebanese parliamentary elections, slated for less than three weeks from now. Signs set ablaze under cover of night are replaced in the morning by new ones. Vote buying has reached unprecedented levels as candidates' tickets are formed; no one believes the patriotic promises of the frontrunners.
The only really interesting question is how much support Hezbollah will win in these elections, and, as a result, whether the present governing coalition can remain in power. The weakness of the coalition against Hezbollah became clear last week, along with the lack of significance for the term "majority."
A proposal to appoint two district heads and a director for the Lebanese interior ministry is on the table. Filling these very senior offices requires not merely governmental permission but a two-thirds majority of its members.
The proposal was put forth by President Michel Suleiman, who entered office a year ago, following the Doha Accord which settled a political crisis that had paralyzed Lebanon for more than a year and a half. One of the main provisions of the accord is that the opposition - Hezbollah and its Christian partner Michel Aoun - is to receive 11 ministerial positions out of a total of 30: that is, one-third plus one, a number large enough to block every major decision requiring a two-thirds majority.
The appointment of two district heads and the interior minister is exactly the test the present government must pass.
Representatives of the opposition made an interesting request. They were ready to approve the appointments on the condition that they would be part of a package that included approval of an increased budget, with significant additions for the council in charge of development in Hezbollah-influenced southern Lebanon. Hezbollah knew that the governing coalition, headed by Saad Hariri and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora would not agree to the deal, pushing the appointments of the senior officials until after the elections. Hezbollah's hope was that they would then be able to place their own candidates in these important positions. The meeting, as was to be expected, was explosive. Hezbollah, through the veto power granted by the Doha Accord, flexed its muscles and won.
This result is just one example of the political power wielded by Hezbollah, even in opposition. Real clout here, however, requires more than public support. Last Friday Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah told supporters, "The opposition is capable of managing a state 10 times larger than Lebanon," and he claimed that it is about to win a large majority in the elections.
But Lebanese rules about equal representation of its various ethnic groups in parliament means that Hezbollah cannot assume victory yet. The Lebanese constitution, amended by the Taif Agreement in 1989, calls for 128 parliamentary seats divided equally among Christians and Muslims, and within the Muslim sector, equally between Sunni and Shi'ites - 27 to each. The remaining seats go to Druze and Alawites.
This division means that each political party must gain support from members of other ethnic groups, which was the amendment's goal: to blur ethnic distinctions between political movements and make people cross religious aisles. According to the Lebanese system, Hezbollah alone cannot reach a parliamentary majority and cannot set up a government by itself.
In the previous round of elections, in 2005, held after the assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri, the coalition won a bloc of 72 seats, while the opposition held 56 (with only 14 for Hezbollah). The atmosphere in Lebanon following the assassination swept many votes into the coalition bloc headed by Saad Hariri, the son of the murdered prime minister, while the Syrian withdrawal from the country on the eve of the elections helped brand the bloc as anti-Syrian, and as capable of disarming Hezbollah.
But the events that took place afterwards proved that having a majority coalition doesn't mean you can carry out your plans. Hezbollah tied up the new government's hands. The Second Lebanon War showed the Lebanese people that Hezbollah could thrust the country into a major fight.
The political paralysis Hezbollah imposed on Lebanon is what allowed it to ask for and receive one-third plus one of the total of government ministers, rendering the coalition victory meaningless. Hezbollah will now be able to exploit the economic and political failures of the government headed by Siniora in order to gather support for its own candidates and those of its potential partners, Christians as well as Sunni Muslims and Druze.
It's notable that the Syrians are nowhere to be seen in these elections. Did Siniora have any effect on them when he announced Syria was a partner Lebanon should improve relations with?
Are they so sure that the opposition will win that they don't feel the need to come to its aid, or did they come to some agreement with the Americans during recent visits to Damascus by senior state department representatives of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? For example, perhaps they were offered acceleration of the Syrian-U.S. dialogue track in exchange for keeping their hands off the election process.
Things are moving into the 21st century, even in Saudi Arabia. The marriage department of the justice ministry announced this week that the officials who write marriage contracts will receive laptop computers for their work. Those authorized to conduct marriages will receive information about the couples, check on their fitness to marry and examine their medical records, all as required by law, via computer.
And thus the traditional scene of these functionaries sitting on the ground or at a table, and writing contracts in an elegant hand, will slowly disappear. More than 300 such contracts are written each day in Saudi Arabia. All that remains now is to teach the officials how to use laptops, and to order more than 4,000 computers for them.
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