Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hezbollah acknowledge defeat in Lebanon election

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has acknowledged his party lost the weekend parliamentary election in Lebanon to the ruling coalition. The Sunni dominated March 14 coalition, led by Saad Hariri won 71 seats in the 128-seat parliament, while the Hezbollah coalition known as March 8 took 57. Speaking on Monday after official results were released, Nasrallah congratulated the government and opposition in a televised address on Monday. "We accept the official results in a sporting spirit," he said.

The loss of the Hezbollah-led opposition has been attributed to the poor performance at the polls of the Free Patriotic Movement, its Christian ally. The Free Patriotic Movement, led by General Michel Aoun, did poorly in the polls winning just 27 seats. Aoun blamed the loss on the large numbers of overseas voters who were flown in to cast their votes. He also said he has "thousands of complaints" about the March 14 forces' "violations" of the election law. "Laws and traditions were violated.” He said. “Regretfully, Patriarch Sfeir's Saturday statement took a tragic tone about the dangers posing to Lebanon which caused fear among people.”

AP's Sam Ghattas also noted the key influence of Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, head of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic. Sfeir issued a last-minute warning about Iranian influence claiming that the nation's character and its Arab identity were under threat. Ghattas said that fears of a Tehran-supported government helped splice Christian swing voters from their supposed Shiite allies to deliver election victory to March 14.

Saad Hariri, son of Rafiq Hariri who was assassinated in 2005, is now poised to follow in his father’s footsteps and become the new Prime Minister. The Arabic An Nahar newspaper said consultations will be launched next Friday 20 June (which is the day parliament term expires) to name the new prime minister who will form the next cabinet and appoint a new parliament speaker. Another newspaper As Safir claims Hezbollah has no objections to Hariri becoming leader if it can do a deal to nominate the speaker.

Hariri will be anxious to negotiate particularly given that Hezbollah still control a powerful private army. Hezbollah’s militia won support in Lebanon by driving the Israeli army out of the south of the country in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation. The March 14 group see the dismantling of this army as a key cornerstone to any lasting Lebanese peace. But his supporters are adamant he will not give them a veto over government policy. It was the veto negotiations which brought the government to a standstill last year and sparked clashes that killed at least 80 people. One Hariri spokesman said Hezbollah’s weapons are “a matter for national dialogue in order to progressively unify them under the army’s control.”

But even though doubts remain about Hezbollah’s willingness to disarm, the election result was well received by Beirut Stock Exchange. On Tuesday shares of Solidere, Lebanon's largest construction and development firm, rose 15 percent. Fadi Mubarak, head of treasury at Lebanon's Credit Bank, said the election’s effect was positive and people saw it as a good sign. Many Lebanese worried that a Hezbollah win would have alienated the country's main donors and left oil-rich Persian Gulf investors feeling skittish.

Hariri’s victory has also been greeted with relief in the West which fears Hezbollah’s terrorist links and Iranian support. But writing in The Irish Times, Michael Jansen says the election should not be read as a victory for Arab moderates. The political balance in the country remains almost the same as it was before the poll with the ruling coalition actually losing one seat since the previous election in 2005. Jansen quotes Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Centre who said “nobody won and nobody lost”. Salem said Hezbollah might be comfortable with the outcome because Israel has been deprived of a pretext to attack Lebanon.

While it seems unlikely Hezbollah would be satisfied to remain perpetually in opposition, the role of Israel cannot be ignored. Later today Obama envoy George Mitchell will go to Lebanon after visits to Israel and Egypt and before heading on to Syria. There he will try and advance a political solution between Israel and its northern neighbours. Mitchell's trip was indicative of his overall approach - to talk to everyone and then "try to move the ball down the field one yard at a time."

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