06/04/2009, 00.00
LEBANON
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International pressures and internal divisions mark Lebanon’s elections

by Paul Dakiki
Two groupings are trying to win: the March 14 alliance backed by the West and Sunni Arab countries and the March 8 coalition backed by Syria and Iran. Whichever side wins, the impact will be felt across the Middle East. At the same time, both groupings lack internal coherence.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Lebanon’s elections are hard to figure out even if their results are not likely to change matters that much. Two alliances are competing for the 128 seats of the National Assembly, each respectively called ‘March 14’ and ‘March 8’.

Saad Hariri, son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who was assassinated in 2005, heads the outgoing parliamentary majority, which is made up of Sunni-based ‘Future Movement’, Druze-centred Progressive Socialist Party and a few Christian parties, most notably the Lebanese Forces (Phalange). The March 8 group is instead constituted by two Shia parties, Hizbollah and Amal, and the Christians of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. Both groups also include other smaller parties.

The March 14 group is pro-Western and is backed by the United States and France as well as Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia. It is Lebanon-centric in relations to international (United Nations) decisions like the presence of international peace-keeping troops along the border with Israel, the disarmament of domestic militias and the international tribunal investigating a recent wave of political murders in the country, including that of Rafik Hariri.

Leading the race according to some public opinion polls, the March 8 coalition is backed by Iran and Syria. Its goal is to reinforce and harden the so-called anti-Israeli resistance and all the groups like Hamas who oppose peace with the Jewish State.

Hizbollah, which dominates the group, is opposed to disarming its militias and is certainly not in favour of an international tribunal that might prove what many believe, namely that the order to kill Hariri came from Damascus.

Given all the international attention Lebanon’s election is certainly not an exclusively domestic affair.

In fact a victory by the Mach 14 alliance is likely to bring support and financial aid from the West and Sunni Arab nations. This in turn would increase US President Obama’s margin in the region, strengthening the camp in favour of an Arab-Israeli peace deal.

Conversely, if Hizbollah wins and forms a government, Iran’s presence in the Middle East would be enhanced, spelling trouble for US Mideast diplomacy.

It is no accident that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterated that a victory by the March 8 alliance would strengthen the resistance and change the situation in the region.

But that is not all. If Hizbollah does win, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel would feel free to take any action that it felt appropriate as it did in July 2006 (when it went to war against the Shia movement).

Similarly, in his visit to Lebanon during which he met March 14 leaders, US Vice President Joe Biden said that a Hizbollah victory would lead the United States to re-evaluate its assistance plans to Lebanon

Hizbollah is well-aware of that and quite concerned because it could spell disaster for the country’s economic development. For this reason it insisted that in case of victory it would seek a government of national unity, an option Hariri has already dismissed.

After all is said and done international interests and pressures have but a limited hold on the country. Under Lebanon’s electoral law the electorate is split according to religious affiliation. This means that the results are by and large already known. At best 20 out of 128 seats are up for grabs and cold tip the balance one way or the other. This makes the country’s 160,000 Armenian Christians, officially aligned with the March 8 grouping, very important.

Irrespective of who wins on Sunday, things will be tough for the winner since neither camp is internally well united.

In the March 14 alliance Walid Jumblatt represents a walking time bomb ready to go off. The Druze leader has in fact a habit of switching sides as he has done in the past. Until recently he took a hard-line stance against Syria and its Lebanese allies, but now seems to be more open to Hizbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

For its part the March 8 alliance has a Christian “problem” because those who joined the alliance with Hizbollah jumping on the bandwagon of Michel Aoun (who was Syria’s main enemy during the civil war) are in it for tactical reasons and remain highly apprehensive about the party of God’s military might.

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