Lebanon’s Elections: Avoiding a New Cycle of Confrontation
Lebanon’s Elections: Avoiding a New Cycle of Confrontation
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Lebanon’s Presidential Vacuum is Prolonging the Country’s Economic Crisis
Lebanon’s Presidential Vacuum is Prolonging the Country’s Economic Crisis
Report / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

Lebanon’s Elections: Avoiding a New Cycle of Confrontation

Lebanon’s 7 June elections risk offering a false hope. That the parties agreed to shift their conflict from street to ballot box is surely a good thing, but it should not be misinterpreted.

Executive Summary

Lebanon’s 7 June elections risk offering a false hope. That the parties agreed to shift their conflict from street to ballot box is surely a good thing, but it should not be misinterpreted. The results almost certainly will be close and so replicate the schism that divides the political arena into two irreconcilable camps. With the crisis that pushed the country to the brink of new civil war in 2008 apparently past, the parties are reverting to form, thus reviving rather than resolving the underlying conflicts. Regardless of who ultimately prevails – the Hizbollah-dominated alliance or the pro-Western coalition – forming a viable government and agreeing on a common program will in the best case be time-consuming and require difficult compromise from all.

The ballot is also an important test for an international community that in recent Middle East elections has shown a disquieting tendency to accept results selectively. The challenge will be to bring winners and losers together rather than exacerbate their differences and threaten to trigger another cycle of violent confrontation.

The current phase of the conflict which began in 2004 reached its climax as Hizbollah took over several Sunni neighbourhoods in Beirut as well as the Druze mountains in response to attempts to challenge its military status. The May 2008 Doha agreement brought the country back from the brink. But the accord was akin to a temporary truce preserving all sides’ fundamental interests and restoring a degree of institutional normalcy (with the election of a consensual president and establishment of a unity government) until parliamentary elections could resolve the political standoff. From the outset, the June voting was thus viewed as a way for one side or the other to impose a more favourable balance of power and legitimise its preferred political outlook.

In this sense, the truce obscured the issues that fuelled the conflict and have gradually re-emerged as the campaign intensified. These include the status of Hizbollah’s weapons, the Sunni-Shiite split, an intra-Christian competition for leadership and differing views of Lebanon’s identity and foreign alliances. The shamelessness with which both sides are making use of the international tribunal looking into the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri is a likely precursor of profound and perilous post-election friction.

As election day nears, battle lines are becoming starker. Campaigning essentially is negative, based on aggressive denunciation of one’s opponent at the expense of clear exposition of one’s political program. Sectarian and communitarian arguments, held in check for a time, are openly displayed, awakening painful civil war memories. Increasingly radical positions on both sides foreshadow, in the best of circumstances, arduous negotiations to reach a compromise. External actors are contributing to polarisation by taking sides, more and more openly, for their respective allies. International consensus on the need for peaceful, legitimate elections could well come to a halt as soon as balloting concludes; at that point, the game of backing one side and ostracising the other looks likely to resume. Under this scenario, which today appears the more probable, the confrontation will not end. It will be pursued by different means.

All this is far from the initial hopes. The elections – the first since the civil war to be held under a law that was not made-in-Syria – once carried the potential for reforms long advocated by civil society activists and which the political class had pledged to undertake. The law agreed upon by the major parties betrayed this initial promise. It is aimed above all at perpetuating the status quo and bolstering communal loyalties. The elections will further entrench existing political elites, the system of which they are prime beneficiaries and the structural paralysis it produces.

The reason is straightforward: the Doha agreement was made possible only once the conflict had spiralled out of control, jeopardising the political class’s collective interests. The peril for now having passed, all actors are returning to old practices. Both camps are engaging in brinkmanship, seeking to intimidate opponents by implicitly warning of widespread instability should results not be to their liking. Will Lebanon once more need a brush with disaster before a new compromise is forged? And, assuming it is achieved, would such a formula be sustainable over the longer term or would the country yet again be led by a government that cannot govern?

The pro-Western “March 14” coalition is claiming it wishes to govern alone if it wins and to shun the cabinet should it lose. But one-sided government is an unrealistic and inadvisable prospect. Hizbollah and its allies have amply demonstrated their ability to obstruct political life and block institutional decisions if they are excluded. Likewise, the Hizbollah-led “March 8” group will do all in its power to avoid a repeat of Hamas’s experience, when triumph at the polls was followed by incapacity to govern due to the international diplomatic and economic boycott. Besides, President Michel Suleiman has nothing to gain from a mono-colour cabinet that would erode his mediating role – the single most important source of his fragile authority.

This means that, regardless of post-electoral manoeuvring, the best one can expect is avoiding a new violent confrontation, even as political paralysis and underlying conflicts persist. Central in this regard will be the attitude of foreign powers, whose local allies are quick to admit that Lebanon’s domestic conflict only can be resolved if they reach a deal. At a minimum then, the coalitions’ respective external supporters ought to avoid past mistakes, recognise the legitimacy of electoral results and press their allies toward peaceful compromise.

They can and should do more. They could support civil society’s reform efforts, insisting for example on reviving the Constitutional Court, which both March 14 and March 8 political leaders prefer to enfeeble. They also could clearly and publicly denounce abusive electoral practices, from vote-buying to the lack of a standardised ballot. At the very least, the first elections of the post-Syrian era should raise the bar for future votes. They are an opportunity to lay the ground for changes, however modest and incremental, to a political system that no longer has the luxury of blaming the Syrian occupation for all its many shortcomings.

Beirut/Brussels, 4 June 2009

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.