Written by Amir Kulick
Two main factions are running in the elections scheduled for June 7. Sa'ad al-Din al-Hariri, son of late Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who was murdered in 2004, heads the first faction - the "March 14 camp." This group is a political alliance between Sunnis led by Hariri (the al-Mustaqbal faction), Druze led by Walid Jumblatt (the Socialist Progressive Party), and various Christian factions (such as the Lebanese Forces, led by Samir Geagea). This alliance was formed in recent years to counter the rising power of the Shiites, and to a large degree also to counter the Syrian presence in the country.
The "March 14 camp" reached its peak in 2005, when it won a landslide in the elections held in the aftermath of the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri and the mass demonstrations that led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon (the Cedar Revolution). The US and France strongly backed this coalition, which following its victory formed a government headed by Fouad Siniora, a close associate of the late Hariri.
Opposing the "March 14 camp" is the opposition, known as the "March 8 camp." This group is based on a political alliance between the Shiites (Hizbollah and Amal) and the Maronite Christian party, the Free Patriot Movement, headed by former Lebanese military commander Michel Aoun, once a prominent opponent of Syria. Aoun returned to Lebanon in April 2005, following a long exile in Paris. Despite his anti-Syrian record, Aoun was in no rush to join Sa'ad al-Din al-Hariri's faction. In the elections held that year, he won a decisive majority in the main Maronite districts on Mt. Lebanon. Nevertheless, negotiations for his entry into the Siniora government failed. Furthermore, Hariri's alliance (the Sunni-Druze-Christian coalition) refused to support his candidacy for the presidency. Frustrated at developments, Aoun allied himself with Hizbollah in early 2006, a move that has benefited both parties. Aoun gains a politican partner of rising weight in the Lebanese political system, whose support will be essential if and when he runs for the presidency. For its part, Hizbollah can use its alliance with Aoun to blur its image as a sectoral party and make inroads among non-Shiites. Sleiman Franjieh, a Maronite Christian and close associate of the Syrians in northern Lebanon, also joined this alliance, as did elements of the Druze Arslan family.
Although a few weeks remain before the elections, it appears that neither alliance will reach the height of its power and sport internal unity. Various tensions appeared in the March 14 coalition with the drafting of the candidate lists for the various districts. In a few cases, the disagreements developed into violent protests. An even more alarming development for this camp is the recent rapproachment between Druze leader Jumblatt, one of the coalition's main pillars, and Hizbollah. Jumblatt, an astute politician, may sense an upset in the making and wants to hedge his bets. Furthermore, the new American policy in favor of dialogue with Syria and Iran is sparking doubts in Lebanon concerning American determination to support the March 14 camp, which is also liable to undermine the alliance's unity.
At the same time, the March 8 camp, the Shiite-Christian opposition, also suffers from discord, likewise due to differences of opinion regarding the particular candidacies. For example, tension has been high in recent weeks between Aoun and Amal leader Nabih Berri over the choice of the alliance's candidates in Baabda and the Jezzine district. Senior Hizbollah sources were even called upon to mediate between the two leaders. In other places, the choice of a particular candidate exacerbated old rivalries between local families, such as the feud between the Shiite al-Musawi and al-Husseini families in southern Lebanon. Furthermore, Hizbollah is going to the elections with a questionable image, following the public accusations exchanged with Egypt after the exposure of a Hizbollah terrorist cell in Sinai. This affair aggravated the damage to Hizbollah's image in Lebanese popular opinion caused by the Second Lebanon war and the organization's violent takeover of neighborhoods in West Beirut in May 2008. In contrast to the national image that Hizbollah has attempted to generate, some of the Lebanese public again regards the organization as a sectoral faction that does the bidding of outside parties, principally Iran.
Beyond the political alliances and local conflicts over lists of candidates, the current elections should be considered more broadly as part of the historic conflict on two key intertwined levels. The first level concerns the distribution of power between the various communities in Lebanon. In the Ta'if Agreement that ended the civil war, a new and more equal distribution of political power between the Maronites and Sunnis was established. At the same time, the agreement ignored the fact that natural population growth has made the Shiite community the largest in the country. This community now constitutes 40 percent of the Lebanese population, if not more. Despite its relative size, the Shiites have remained underrepresented with respect to access to power and influence. This problem is further aggravated by the fact that its demographic advantage is accompanied by significant military power, through Hizbollah and its strong external patrons, Iran and Syria.
Over the years, the Lebanese political system has been able to find compromise formulas for distributing power. When it failed to do so in the mid-1970s, the country underwent a bloody civil war. From this perspective, the coming elections are likely to constitute a crossroads whereby the various parties will have to decide whether Lebanon will embark on the road to compromise and a redistribution of power in the coming years, or choose a road that leads the various communities to a military confrontation.
The second level is the historic struggle over Lebanon's political orientation, and in a wider context, its social and cultural identity. Lebanon arose in the 1920s with a deep affinity to France and the West. Over the years, the Lebanese political system has operated in the shadow of the tension between the pro-Western orientation advocated by the Christians and the pro-nationalist, and at certain points Nasserist, orientation favored by the Muslims. The formula established to bridge this gap holds that Lebanon is an Arab country with an affinity to the West. Since the 1980s, and even more in recent years, this formula has been undermined.
The establishment of Hizbollah and its assumption of a dominant role in Lebanon have led to the presentation of a counter vision for Lebanon - that of a Shiite-dominated country under Islamic law. Together with the destruction of Israel, this vision is one of Hizbollah's two main goals. At the same time, it appears that for the moment, Hizbollah and its supporters are in no rush to use force to change Lebanon's character. The demographic trends are in their favor, and as long as their military power is maintained, the trends are auspicious.
The vigorous calls by Hizbollah spokesmen to cancel the current distribution in Lebanese politics should be understood from this perspective. Thus if Hizbollah and its supporters win a significant majority, the current elections are likely to constitute another milestone in the realization of Hizbollah's vision.
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.