"In Lebanese Election, Hopeful Signs for U.S.
In Lebanese Election, Hopeful Signs for U.S.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — There were many domestic reasons voters handed an American-backed coalition a victory in Lebanese parliamentary elections on Sunday — but political analysts also attribute it in part to President Obama’s campaign of outreach to the Arab and Muslim world.
Most analysts had predicted that the Hezbollah-led coalition, already a crucial power broker in the Lebanese government because of its support from Shiites who make up a large part of Lebanon’s population, would win handily. In the end, though, the American-aligned coalition won 71 seats, while the Syria-Iranian aligned opposition, which includes Hezbollah, took only 57.
It is hard to draw firm conclusions from one election. But for the first time in a long time, being aligned with the United States did not lead to defeat in the Middle East. And since Lebanon has always been a critical testing ground, that could mark a possibly significant shift in regional dynamics with another major election, in Iran, just four days away.
With Mr. Obama’s speech on relations with Muslims still fresh in Lebanese minds, analysts pointed to steps the administration has taken since assuming office.
Washington is now proposing talking to Hezbollah’s patrons, Iran and Syria, rather than confronting them — a move that undermines the group’s attempt to demonize the United States. The United States is also no longer pressing its allies in the Lebanese government to unilaterally disarm Hezbollah, which, given the party’s considerable remaining clout, could have provoked a crisis.
“Lebanon is a telling case,” said Osama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies here. “It is no longer relevant for the extremists to use the anti-American card. It does look like the U.S. is moving on to something new.”
In fact, some analysts said that it was possible that Lebanon’s election could be a harbinger of Friday’s presidential race in Iran, where a hard-line anti-American president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may be losing ground against his main moderate challenger, Mir Hussein Moussavi.
While President Ahmadinejad has grown unpopular for many reasons, including his troubled stewardship of the economy, political analysts said that President Obama has blunted the appeal of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s confrontation with the West.
The results in Lebanon may also make it more difficult for Israel to capitalize on fears of Hezbollah dominance and shift the conversation away from the peace process with the Palestinians — a tactic that many analysts here attributed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I think the speech of Obama in Cairo more likely played a role in neutralizing anti-Americanism,” said Khalil al-Dakhil, a sociologist from Saudi Arabia. “It was a positive message. It was a conciliatory message.”
Nonetheless, there are many other factors at play that do not depend on the United States. The Lebanese election did little to change the balance of power in a country where Hezbollah is by far the strongest player. Christians, who played a moderating role and have traditionally tilted toward the United States, are not a political force elsewhere in the region. And it will probably be weeks, even months, before all sides can agree on the makeup of a new government, suggesting the paralysis that has often enveloped Lebanon’s government may continue.
Power in Lebanon is divided along sectarian lines. Christians control half of the 128-seat Parliament. The other half is divided between Sunni, Shiite, Druse and a few other sects. In this election, Shiites voted largely with Hezbollah and the opposition, and Sunnis and Druse mostly voted with the majority. The real contest was among Christians, who were divided between the camps this time around. And here the American-backed, Sunni-led coalition appears to have conducted a well-calculated negative campaign, stoking sectarian tensions and fears of Iranian and Syrian dominance.
The opposition fought back, with Hezbollah and its allies charging that the March 14 coalition, as the Western-backed parties are known, has allowed the United States to control Lebanon and serves as an agent of Israel.
But among important Christian swing voters, fears of Iran and Syria appeared to trump concerns about interference from Washington.
When Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. visited Lebanon in late May, and appeared to threaten withdrawal of financial aid if the opposition won, that was widely derided as a kiss of death. But now, some political analysts believe the vice president may have helped by crystallizing for voters their choice: alliance with the United States, France and the regional allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia; or with Iran and Syria and their allies, Hezbollah and Hamas.
The fear was that Lebanon might have become isolated like the Gaza Strip.
“Evidently the majority of the Lebanese have resolved their minds; they don’t want confrontation, they want peace,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at American University of Beirut.
Final results showed that 54.8 percent of eligible voters turned out, far higher than the 28 percent who voted in 2005.
The Lebanese Parliament will be divided almost exactly as it was, denying the new majority a mandate to govern alone. It has an increased legitimacy to form a government, but that legitimacy is largely symbolic. As a result, to preserve stability, the majority is likely to agree to a unity government that incorporates members of the opposition.
The biggest loser was a retired Christian general, Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. He entered into an alliance with Hezbollah and, had that alliance won, would have emerged as the most powerful Christian leader in the country. Instead, political analysts said that has emerged diminished.
While those internal details were being worked out, all eyes are expected to shift to Iran for Friday’s presidential election. An upset victory there for the challenger would not fundamentally alter Iran’s priorities, but it would be taken as another step in the moderation of the region.
“Iran did not get a chip and neither did Syria,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “Today, the U.S., France, Egypt, Saudi, they all feel better.”