06/04/2009, 00.00
LEBANON
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Lebanon’s Christians at a crossroad in Sunday’s parliamentary elections

by Fady Noun
Christians go to the poll next Sunday split. Two major alignments are vying for 128 seats, an anti-Syrian front and the pro-Syrian Hizbollah-dominated alliance. Vote trading might end up distorting the outcome.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Lebanon will go to the polls next Sunday under the watchful eye of European, American (Carter Foundation) and Francophone observers, not to mention local NGOs, in what is a crucial time of its history. About 3.1 million voters (60 per cent Muslim; 40 per cent Christian) are called to elect the 128 members of the National Assembly.

Political alignments are evenly split between those who want to tie Lebanon to the West, the United States and Europe, as well as to pro-Western Arab countries (Sunni nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia), and those who want Lebanon to line up with Syria (to maintain the old ambiguous relationship that survives despite recent formal changes like the exchange of ambassadors) and Iran (ostensibly opposed to the United States—the Great Satan—and its imperialism, but in fact itself ideologically expansionist and de facto imperialist under the Welayat-e-Faqih or Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, who act as God’s custodians in charge of the main temporal and spiritual decisions).

Where do Lebanon’s interests lie in all this? In a “regional alliance of minorities” (Shia, Alawi and Christians) against the Sunni juggernaut (90 per cent of all Muslims), or in a neutral stance based on an open relationship with the West whereby each group can continue to be what it is, namely a cultural bridge between the Arab world and Western culture to which they participate through their Christian roots, the bases of modernity, whatever some may say?

Notwithstanding demographics, the Maronite Church has opted for the latter choice. The March 14 group has done the same. Michel Aoun, Hizbollah and other groups, united in the pro-Syrian March 8 alliance, are following a different, alternative path and are in favour of an “alliance of minorities”, a strategic choice that transcends the Lebanese context.

A year ago, Michel Suleiman’s election to the presidency appeared like a “third path,” one that has remained so far the basis of a certain consensus.

In a just a few days, Lebanon’s electorate will signal which direction it has chosen. If history is any indicator Christians will tip the balance one way or the other.

The 128 seats in Lebanon’s National Assembly are evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. About a hundred seats are for all intents and purposes already decided since the electoral map, the number of voters and confessional affiliation already predetermine the outcome with almost no margin of errors.

Surveys also indicate that the 18 of the remaining 28 seats will go as pundits expect. This leaves only ten seats that are really up for grabs, mostly fought over by Christian candidates in the habit of switching sides or who belong to a smaller centrist party, close to the president.

In the end whatever majority does emerge, it will be very small and will not give the winner the means to govern alone. But any victory will be psychologically significant because it will show which camp most Christians . . . and most Lebanese have chosen. 

Can the Lebanese vote freely? Yes, to the extent that polling stations are safe and ballot boxes are not tampered. But is their choice truly free? Not really if we consider the various factors that interfere with their choice. Topping the list of reasons is the absolute demonisation of opponents in the media, the net result of which is that voters end up having to choose either the lackeys of the West (read: traitors) or the puppets of the two “rogue states”.

The only one who appears to have kept an even keel between the two opposing sides is the president, a master at negotiating his way between the two alternative political camps with an astounding aplomb.

However, vote trading is a factor complicating matters. Even though the election law established a spending ceiling, both sides have liberally disregarded it. Hence, as long as the authorities do not enforce the law illegal spending will continue.

The problem will also persist not only because Hizbollah and its financial backers (who funnel money through non traditional financial channels) can operate outside of state controls, but also because the so-called party of God remains in control of an area that is beyond the reach of Lebanese law, a situation ostensibly justified by Hizbollah’s resistance role. In turn this is used by other parties to justify their own lack of transparency.

Yesterday in an appeal to the people of Lebanon, above all to the Maronite community, the Maronite Patriarchate urged voters to go out and vote and to choose on the basis of their conscience rather than on any electoral qui pro quo.

In light of the current state of affairs, voters will need a lot of foresight to cast wisely their ballot next Sunday.

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