Monday, June 08, 2009

So March 14 won big. What does that mean?

I expected a close election, at least markedly closer than the last election that was in the wake of the Hariri assassination. My thoughts about what this unexpected victory for March 14 means in the larger scheme haven't fully formed yet.

The battleground in this election was always going to be the Lebanese Christian community - which on a per-person basis is substantially over-represented in Lebanon's Parliament, but it was never expected that they would go for March 14 as opposed to March 8, the group containing Hezbollah, to the degree they did.

My explanation for March 14th's success in this election is effective political work as well as a flood of resources from, especially, Saudi Arabia. If there is an anti-Iranian alliance between the Saudis and Israel, this is a model of Saudi activity along those lines.

The Saudis have shown they are able and willing to devote a huge amount of resources to impact an election in the Muslim world. This may mean Fatah will have far greater resources in its next electoral competition with Hamas. It is also possible that comparable resources be devoted to getting a yes vote on a referendum. In either case, it is possible that Saudi interventions can effectively sway Arab electoral decisions.

On the other hand, Hezbollah, and its leader Nasrallah, who I still see as one of the best Arab politicians, will learn from this loss, regroup and run in future elections.

The structural disadvantage of the Shiites in the Lebanese electoral system is a problem that will still have to be addressed. Exacerbating the problem is that Israel and the US, for the same reasons they support dictatorships in Egypt and Jordan, favor the disenfranchisement of the Shiites in Lebanon and will consistently intervene to prevent a one-person/one-vote electoral system. Possibly US/Israeli interventions will have more active Saudi assistance than before.

The United States will now pressure pro-Western parties in Lebanon to form a cabinet in which there is no Shiite veto. It is unlikely that the Shiites will go along with this, which means there is a good chance Lebanon will revisit the crisis atmosphere of late 2007. A return to confrontation would hurt Lebanese people a lot more than it would hurt either Israel or the US, so hopefully March 14 will come to a peaceful accomodation.


Ziad said...

While it may seem like sour grapes the morning after, a March 8 loss may be for the best. Hizb is not a governing organization. It is best not to be responsible for Lebanon's economy and stability. There is no advantage to international scrutiny, and no advantage to have Saudi Arabia and the U.S. angry at you. It also restricts (slightly) Israel's military options.

Also, I'm not sure yet how hard Obama will push for disarmament. It may be a leverage point to use against Netanyahoo.

Don't know how the cabinet will form up. But Hizb has good relations with the army and also with the president, so it controls many of the levers of power even without a blocking veto.

Also, Demographics favor the Shiites. If they are not the majority already, they will be soon enough. Saudi Arabia could not buy an election in Iraq.

Of course, it would have been far better to have a narrow loss, such as 66-62. But this will not have a dramatic affect on Hizb.

Arnold Evans said...

I'm not sure Obama can push for disarmament of Hezbollah. Disarming Hezbollah, or making serious preparations to disarm Hezbollah means confronting Hezbollah violently and it means soldiers have to be willing to die for that. Where in the world is the politician, outside of Israel, who would send soldiers to die to disarm Hezbollah? I don't think there are any. Israel tried and failed, and would only do worse next time.

So Hezbollah's arms are safe until the election Hezbollah wins, when they permanently join the Lebanese army with their leadership structure essentially intact.

The question for Lebanon is still when is the electoral system going to be reformed. I think it is a matter of at least 10 years, but less than 30 that the crisis point is reached that the alternatives are a serious conflict or a peaceful acceptance of one person/one vote and after then Lebanon will reflect its Shiite population fully.

Until then, unfortunately, it doesn't matter how much demographic patterns change in the Shiites' favor.

Ziad said...

I certainly never thought Obama would ever actually **disarm** Hizbullah. But he can do all the diplomatic stuff to pressure disarmament. Pressure March 14, Pressure the UN, Pressure Europe. And generally bring up the topic himself at every opportunity.

Or, he could remain totally silent, with silence essentially implying consent. Of those two choices, Israel would certainly prefer the former. Obama may make them pay for it.

If in the coming weeks no senior figure from the administration makes any noise about disarmament, I will take it as a sign that Washington has really changed the game.

Arnold Evans said...

You're right, and not only that, but March 14 does not want confrontation with Hezbollah in itself, and there aren't real important policy disputes between them right now.

Israel does want March 14 to confront March 8.

My expectation is that the US will apply pressure on March 14 to take stances hostile to March 8, even beyond what March 14 would normally want.

Hopefully March 14 will shrug this pressure off. Breaking up the country, or leading down the path of another civil war is just not what anyone outside of Israel wants. Maybe Israel wouldn't want it either since Hezbollah would definitely get the South and Syria could easily strangle the North. But Israel is bad at calculating the results of wars beforehand and seems to want to try to neuter Hezbollah in any way it can.

I don't know what to expect in Lebanon. I'm hoping one way or another hostilities between the sides do not escalate into a spiral.

I'm fairly confident Obama will not pressure March 14 into a confrontation with March 8, because he can calculate that March 8 would just win the things it wants which would cause hardship he'd rather avoid. But it's still early.