Hezbollah, Allies Defeated in Lebanon Poll But Outlook Still Troubling

By Patrick Goodenough | June 8, 2009 | 2:16 AM EDT

Caption: Supporters of Hezbollah display a portait of Hassan Nasrallah shortly after polling stations closed east of Beirut on Sunday, June 7, 2009. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) –  Lebanon’s pro-Western coalition has declared victory over Hezbollah and its allies in Sunday’s parliamentary election but the result looks set to leave Lebanon essentially where it was before, with the powerful Shi’ite terrorist group posing a threat to political stability and refusing to disarm.

Unofficial results early Monday brought projections that the “March 14” alliance would secure around 70 seats in the 128-seat parliament, with some 58 seats for Hezbollah and its allies in the pro-Syrian “March 9” bloc – around the same number as both held in the outgoing legislature.

By agreement since 1989, parliament’s seats are divided equally between Christians and Muslims, and broken down further with specific numbers of seats earmarked for various sects and denominations.

Hezbollah itself did not fare badly, claiming victory in all 11 seats it contested. The big loser appeared to be Michel Aoun, an ethnic Christian and former military chief who had thrown in his lot with Hezbollah and its fellow Shi’ite Amal movement in the March 9 bloc – an alliance that enabled the Shi’ites to present a more moderate, non-sectarian face. Aoun’s faction reportedly lost several key races in Christian-majority districts, where many had warned that a Hezbollah victory could usher in greater Iranian-Shi’ite influence in the country.

The March 14 group won the last elections, which followed the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri in 2005. But Hezbollah subsequently triggered a political crisis that paralyzed the country for 18 months. Eventually an agreement was hammered out with outside Arab mediation that gave Hezbollah effective veto power – control of one-third plus one of the seats in cabinet – and did not demand that it relinquish its arms.

Hariri’s son, Saad, heads the March 14 coalition and would be the most likely politician to be put forward by a majority of lawmakers in the new parliament as the prime minister, a position which under longstanding protocols is traditionally held by a Sunni.

During the campaign, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that if March 9 won it would grant March 14, which would then be in opposition, veto power. He challenged the March 14 bloc to make the same pledge in the event the situation was reversed, but Hariri demurred.

Hariri said on television early Monday that he wanted to work with the losing opposition “together and seriously for the sake of Lebanon.”

It remains to be seen how Hezbollah would adapt to a situation in which it loses the veto power it has wielded for the past year; more political tensions seem likely. Adding to the difficulties ahead are reports that surfaced just days before the election claiming that a U.N. inquiry into Rafik Hariri’s murder has implicated Hezbollah. The Iranian-sponsored group denied the allegation.

The election result will spare the Obama administration from the immediate dilemma of how to relate to a government led by Hezbollah. When Hamas – the Iranian-backed, Hezbollah-allied terror group in the Gaza Strip,– won Palestinian elections in 2005, the Bush administration refused to deal with it until it met specific criteria including renunciation of violence and recognition of Israel.

Hezbollah shares Hamas’ stances on those issues, and in recent months made clear it would not be changing them to suit Western governments.

It has also made no move to surrender its weapons arsenal, stocked with Iranian and Syrian help, despite U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it disarm. Nasrallah said in campaign speeches Hezbollah retained its weapons to defend Lebanon against Israel, and his deputy, Naim Qassem, pledged last Wednesday, “We will continue to buy arms, and stay an armed resistance force.”

Top U.S. officials including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had intimated that U.S. assistance to Lebanon – including the millions of dollars spent on training and equipping the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) – may be at risk in the event Hezbollah took the reins of government. That position will now probably not be tested.

Caption: Supporters of Lebanon’s pro-Western coalition celebrate after polling stations close in a Sunni stronghold in Beirut on Sunday, June 7, 2009. (AP Photo)

‘Pursuing its long-term agenda’

A Hezbollah-led government would have been considerably more friendly towards Syria and Iran and the Israeli government expressed concern that a victory for the Shi’ite group and its allies would be “very dangerous” for regional stability.

But some analysts sympathetic to Israel argued earlier that a Hezbollah victory would actually be the better of the two evils: it would force to group to grapple with the responsibilities of administration while depriving the country of U.S. assistance.

“Don’t worry if Hezbollah wins,” the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) said in a commentary on the eve of the election. “Worry if it loses.”

”If Hezbollah wins the election, the United States will have to restrict its dealings with the government,” it said. “But if the [March 13] forces win a plurality and Hezbollah comes in 5-10 percentage points lower, Hezbollah will be able to claim minority status while pursuing its long-term agenda.”

JINSA noted that Hezbollah has a collaborative relationship with the LAF in southern Lebanon, with local Shi’ites joining both forces, “so there are brothers and cousins on both sides of the equation.”

“Claiming that Hezbollah isn’t actually in charge would allow the United States to continue providing economic aid to Lebanon and arming and training the LAF. That would suit Hezbollah and suit the United States – although it doesn’t do much for the long-term security of Israel.”

David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute, argued on the group’s Web site that a March 14 victory “would not fundamentally change the status quo on the ground: a pro-West majority would still be limited in its ability to effect policy changes by virtue of the opposition’s ‘blocking third’ in the cabinet and its military prowess.” Any attempt to declare the veto null and void would be resisted by Hezbollah.

A victory for the pro-Western bloc, Schenker said, would “do little to alleviate the ongoing local tensions or to end the regional face-off between the United States and Iran.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow