The unexpected results of the parliamentary elections in Lebanon can make Hezbollah very happy. A preliminary calculation indicates that the Shi’ite movements, Hezbollah and Amal, together with their partner, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, have together garnered 67 of the 128 seats.
If this is indeed the final number, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah can chalk up a significant political achievement. That is because despite public protests against his participation in the war in Syria and Lebanon’s involvement in a war not its own, Hezbollah and its partners have managed not only to win a high number of seats, but also political power that will dictate the makeup of the government.
But here are two explosive issues that could stop Hezbollah doing as it pleases. One involves the expected appointment of Sa’ad Hariri as prime minister. Although his bloc of supporters lost 16 seats compared to 2009, Hariri controls the largest Sunni faction, with 20 seats, making him the leading candidate for premier.
Hezbollah, which will be a partner in the government, has a vested interest in Hariri’s success, especially because it will grant international legitimacy to the government, enjoy Saudi economic support and ensure the flow of money from the donor nations, which amounts to about $10 billion in loans and grants. But to preserve the fragile balance between Nasrallah and Iran’s agenda and the need to prevent a break with Hariri, Hezbollah will have to make concessions.
These concessions will not be ideological, but rather those that keep the war in Syria from creeping into Lebanon and turning it into a battleground with Israel. Hezbollah, which lost seats in its traditional strongholds in the Bekaa Valley because that region became a battleground, apparently appreciates the threat that now lies at its door.
The second issue involves the political power of Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his ability to give Hezbollah full support in the government. The bloc that supports Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement, also incurred a painful loss in the elections, emerging with only 20 seats, compared to 36 in 2009. This bloc, which purports to represent the Maronite Christian community, will no longer be able to claim that it is the only representative, especially considering the sweeping win of the Christian Lebanese Forces, led by Samir Geagea, which doubled its parliamentary strength. Aoun’s political bloc also suffers from internal division, which does not beset the Lebanese Forces, Hezbollah’s rival.
The jigsaw puzzle of forces expected to be represented in parliament thus does not promise smooth and secure sailing for Hezbollah, especially if serious crises ensue in Lebanon over the budget or decisions over the presence of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, not to mention if an armed clash erupts with Israel. This will be the source of another test for the next Lebanese government, the assembling of which has been a significant obstacle.
The Lebanese constitution does state that the prime minister will be Sunni, and as noted, Hariri will have the first right of refusal, but agreement on the appointment of prime minister is the simpler part. Hezbollah will want to hold onto at least one third of the government seats plus one more, because according to the constitution, major government decisions must be passed by two thirds of its members. If even a single member is lacking to reach a two-thirds majority, the decision does not pass. Hezbollah’s power has rested in recent years on its ability to thwart government decisions thanks to the formula of one third plus one and not on initiating and implementing decisions. Hariri’s struggle is also expected to revolve around this issue in negotiations over the makeup of the government and the formulation of its platform.
It is hard to know how long the process will take; in the past it has paralyzed the government or delayed its makeup for many months. But if in previous political campaigns the status of former president, Michel Suleiman, carried a great deal of weight, which helped resolve such crises, the current president, Aoun, especially after his losses in the elections, will have a hard time appearing as “everyone’s president.” What’s more, his partnership with Hezbollah distances him from the consensus.
The dry figures of the election’s outcome are therefore only an indication of the political battles soon to come, and so no far-reaching and quick conclusions should be drawn on the question of Iran’s victory or Saudi Arabia’s defeat. These elections leave those countries enough leverage to advance their interests while at the same time require them to tread carefully so as not to lose their focuses of influence in Lebanon.
Israel has a major interest in Lebanon’s stability and economic development, even with Hezbollah in the government. This partnership has helped in the past to maintain a balance of deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah, so things do not deteriorate into a violent clash, among other reasons due to the constant threat to strike Lebanese civilian infrastructure in response to an attack from Lebanon. Theoretically at least, the more Lebanon flourishes, the more the Israeli threat serves as a deterrent.
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