The Coalition Is the Question

Will Hassan Nasrallah rule Lebanon after yesterday's elections? To borrow a line from the politicians' phrase book: "That isn't the real question."

Nasrallah ruled Lebanon throughout the last two years, even when the March 8 Alliance led by Hezbollah was in the minority. He paralyzed the government by ordering his representatives to resign, he decided independently when to attack Israel and made up new rules for the political game when he kidnapped the two Israel Defense Forces soldiers and took Lebanon into war. A year ago, when an understanding was reached between the parties at the Doha Conference and the government of Lebanon returned to work, Nasrallah won a major prize: The agreement stated that one-third plus one of the government's ministers must be from the opposition - the number the country's constitution demands for a major decision to be vetoed.

For Israel, a March 8 Alliance victory gives rise to many troubling questions: Will the status of UNIFIL's force in Lebanon remain as stated in UN Security Council decision 1701? Will the Lebanese army remain in the southern part of the country? And who will supervise the smugglers working the border between Syria and Lebanon? The answers depend not so much on Hezbollah, but on political processes, such as Israeli-Syrian or American-Iranian dialogues.

At the same time, the feeling that these elections may determine the political landscape of Lebanon for a very long time is illustrated well by the high turnout - over 50 percent of eligible voters. The results of the elections will signal whether the Lebanese public supports continued armed resistance vis-a-vis Israel, whether Syria is still the "ally of choice" in Lebanon, and how much support Iran is likely to enjoy in the country.

In practical terms, these elections could pave the way for a historic change in the way in which different national elements are represented in Lebanon's power-sharing system. The Shia community, which appears to be the largest, might request proportional representation.

The election process may thus be just a first step in a redrawing of the country's political map. Hence, the real question is what coalition will be assembled, rather than whether Hezbollah will "win."

Coalition-building is ingrained in the Lebanese constitution and electoral system. The seats are equally divided between Christian and Moslems, and Sunni and Shia. So even if Hezbollah, which up until yesterday held 14 seats, grows considerably stronger, it will never be able to win more than the total of 27 seats allocated to the Shia community, just as the Sunnis or Christians will not be able to exceed their stated number of seats.

All this, however, does not mean that the opposition and coalition of the incumbent parliament will play the same roles in the future. Lebanese politics are fraught with small parties, and even prominent leaders cross ideological lines when certain interests demand it. Furthermore, this guarantees that neither of the large contending blocs will be able to do with Lebanon as it pleases.