Monday, June 1, 2009

What If Hizballah Won the Elections in Lebanon?

By Jonathan Spyer

With a week to go before Lebanon's parliamentary elections, it is impossible to accurately predict the result. There are no reliable polls.

It is clear, however, that the rival blocs - the pro-Western March 14 alliance and the Hizbullah-led March 8 bloc - are fairly evenly matched, and thus any victory will be achieved by only a narrow margin.

A March 14 victory - which remains a possibility - would mean the maintenance of the status quo on the crucial issues. The state-within-a-state maintained by Hizbullah will not be challenged. Hizbullah settled the question of the government's ability to interfere with its shadow military and security structures in the Beirut events of May 2008. March 14 possesses neither the will nor the instruments to effect such a challenge.

In other words, a victory for March 14 would mark a significant symbolic setback for Hizbullah, but little else.

The more interesting question, however, is what a victory for the March 8 bloc would mean.

Hizbullah's long-term strategic goal is the domination of Lebanon, and the establishment of an Islamic republic in the country. However, at the present time, the movement and its backers in Teheran and Damascus are primarily concerned with the safeguarding of the movement's military and sociopolitical structures.

This goal would not be best served by a push for the unambiguous domination of the political system.

A government dominated by the March 8 coalition, and including no representation from March 14, would certainly represent a very significant symbolic achievement for the Iran-led regional bloc, of which Hizbullah is a senior member. But it might also serve to set a Hizbullah-dominated Lebanon on a course of premature confrontation with the United States. It would mean a reduction or elimination of US aid to the Lebanese military.

In the 2005-2008 period, the US gave more than $250 million to the Lebanese Armed Forces. Such largesse would be unlikely to survive the formation of an openly Hizbullah-dominated government.

Aid to the ailing Lebanese economy from international bodies might also be removed or reduced. The meetings between Hizbullah representatives and officials of the International Monetary Fund should be seen against this background.

A Lebanese government clearly dominated by Hizbullah would also have implications regarding the ongoing war with Israel to which the movement is committed.

Hizbullah has benefited in the past by using the official structures of the Lebanese state as a sort of curtain behind which it could hide. It has engineered an enviable situation over the past decade in which while the official organs of the state are unable to interfere with the strategic decisions of Hizbullah, the movement's unassailable power exists in parallel with the Lebanese state, rather than in place of it or in open domination of it.

The advantages inherent in this situation were in evidence during the 2006 war. It is unlikely that the movement will wish to dispense with them.

It is for this reason that Hizbullah cares little about its own direct representation in the parliament - and is quite happy to see the "rival" Amal movement retain the plurality of Shi'ite seats. It is also for this reason that Hizbullah has made clear that its preferred government following the elections would be a March 8-dominated coalition, which would nevertheless include significant involvement from March 14.

The movement would like to see Sa'ad Hariri, March 14's leader, take up the post of prime minister - though Hariri has ruled this out.

Continued March 14 involvement in the government would provide the preferred fig leaf. The sectarian complexities of Lebanon notwithstanding, such an arrangement would resemble the situation in the countries of the Warsaw Pact prior to 1989 - in which straw-man governments took responsibility for the day-to-day tasks of administration, while real power resided in the structures of the communist parties and their security services.

Hizbullah has nevertheless made clear that if necessary, it can rule alone.

In an inflammatory speech given earlier this month, Hassan Nasrallah boasted of his movement's achievements in fighting March 14 supporters in Beirut in May 2008. He described May 7, 2008, as a "day of glory" for the "resistance," and boasted that any movement capable of taking on the "mightiest army in the world" (Israelis will be happy to hear that he was referring to the IDF) could also rule a country "100 times greater" than Lebanon.

But despite the rhetoric, it is clear that Hizbullah would prefer a broad coalition.

The movement wants to avoid any possibility of presiding over a larger and more complex version of the situation which faced the Palestinians following the Hamas electoral victory in January 2006.

It also suits Hizbullah's interests not to be drawn too far into the open in its war with Israel. Hizbullah may have spun the inconclusive 2006 fighting into a "Divine Victory," but it knows that if it ends up facing Israel in a conventional situation as the ruler of Lebanon, it could face strategic defeat.
The bottom line is that whatever the result on June 7, Hizbullah's position as a shadow governing power and a state-within-a-state is not under threat. It is Lebanon's tragedy that power of this kind is impervious to the results of free elections. It can only be broken by other means.

By my colleague, Jonathan Spyer in the Jerusalem Post. Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, IDC, Herzliya.

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