BEIRUT — Tomorrow’s by-elections have turned into a critical test of political power here in Lebanon and the results will be seen as a bellweather for the influence of either the United States or the Islamic Republic Iran.
Some background on the election is here, in a column I wrote for Spot-on.com. I’ll wait while you read and come back.
All done? Good. Right now, the March 14 alliance, primarily made up of Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and Amin Gemayel’s Phalange Party (which is related to the LF), is freaking out over the elections. They’re acting like people who are scared to death of losing. Meanwhile, Gen. Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement is acting like a party that’s already won. (Aoun is allied with the pro-Syrian faction in Lebanon and includes Hezbollah, Amal Movement and the Syrian Socialist National Party.)
I was speaking with a representative from Aoun’s people yesterday and they expect to win. This rather confusing report from Information International (caveat emptor) say that 60 percent of the Maronite vote will go to Amin Gemayel while 85 percent of the Armenian vote will go to Kamile Khoury, the FPM candidate. What does that mean in predicting who will ultimately win? No idea. But I’ve seen some numbers from various outlets pointing to an Aounist victory with about 53 percent of the vote. The general swept the region in the 2005 elections.
Of course there will be voter fraud. Already there are stories of Syrians with Lebanese citizenship being bussed in to vote and my fiancée and I personally witnessed an attempt at vote buying on the part of the “pro-democracy” March 14 alliance. Voting for Gemayel gets you $150, by the way.
This election is splitting the Christians of Lebanon. They’re the only group with a significant split these days. It’s no exaggeration to say that almost all Sunnis and Druze support the March 14 movement while almost all Shi’ites support the opposition bloc. But the Christians are a different story.
Historically split, some of the fiercest and most vicious battles of the 1975-90 civil war were fought between the Christian groups. In the waning days of the conflict, Aoun as caretaker prime minister, battled Lebanese Forces militiamen for control of ports in order to seize the revenue generated from them. (He succeeded, mostly.)
Today, Aoun and the Gemayel family — from whose Phalange Party the Lebanese Forces militia split off — are still at each others’ throats, making this election a contest for the right to claim the leadership of the Christians of Lebanon. If Aoun wins — and there’s a real chance he might — that will indicate the Christian heartland has shifted away from the government.
If Aoun’s candidate loses, however, Aoun will no longer be able to tell his buddies in the opposition he can rally Lebanon’s Christians, which was a key selling point when he joined that side. His chances of ever becoming president — which can only happen if the opposition brings down the March 14 government and supports Aoun for the top spot — will be zero.
(By the way, although Aoun’s people say he isn’t pro-Syrian, if you’re allied with pro-Syrian parties, continue to oppose the faction that’s vehemently anti-Syrian, work to bring down the anti-Syrian government and run for a seat that was vacated because of an assassination that was probably at the hands of Syrian agents, you’re pretty much “objectively” pro-Syrian. All of which makes his bid for the presidency so galling to half of the country. They already have one Syrian stooge for a president in the form of Emile Lahoud. After the Syrian troops left, isn’t it time, they argue, for someone who’s not in Damascus’ back pocket?)
At any rate, Lebanon doesn’t really do “losing gracefully,” so there is a high chance of violence in the coming days. Already tonight, there have been scuffles around the Aounists’ headquarters in Mansouriya and the army and security forces are out in force. Both sides have indicated they’re ready to fight, with the LF leadership speaking of willing to spill blood and Aoun himself saying Saturday that “our fists” are ready to protect people.
I’m heading up tomorrow early after IraqSlogger duties to keep an eye on things. Will report in when I get back.