Elections, Lebanon, March 14

Rebooting March 14th?

march14Something’s going on with March 14th.

I’ve felt for a while that the coalition had begun to come apart at the seams before the events of May 7th, and the Doha Accord only formalized the fact that M14 was totally adrift: aimless, divided, and desperately in need of a raison d’être. It was not clear how the various parties that had once united solidly around the concept of freedom from Syrian domination would find common cause again, at least in time for the 2009 parliamentary elections. The centripetal force exerted on the coalition by the spectre of Syrian hegemony has grown weaker and weaker over the months, yet the rhetoric of M14 politicians seems to be lodged in 2005.

On the other hand, there have been some small signs of a potential shift in orientation, or at least a reconfiguration of the principal elements of the alliance. Recently, Walid Jumblat criticized Amin Gemayel’s speech at the Kataeb memorial, as did Elias Khoury in Sunday’s an-Nahar. More interestingly, al-Akhbar ran a big feature article over the weekend about the Future Movement’s electoral strategy for the 2009 parliamentary elections. The two-page spread — which had “officially-sanctioned leak” written all over it, in my opinion — cited anonymous senior sources in the FM saying that while the party’s decision-makers have been busy at work on the electoral strategy, none of their MPs have yet been notified about whether or not they will be asked to run. This silence is making many people nervous, as is the rumor that Saad al-Hariri has allegedly hired five statistical polling firms to survey the FM’s battleground territories, with the goal of determining which parliamentarians have strong approval ratings (I kid you not) among their constituents.

But wait, it gets better! The sources continue to say that Saad is prepared to scrap his 2005 electoral lists and replace them almost completely with names chosen “by statistics and not by al-Hariri.” In other words, “the young za’im will rely upon the results of the studies to pick names that impose themselves through a survey of public opinion, so that their victory will be assured”. Could someone please slap me in the face? For a second I thought that all this was happening in Lebanon.

As I said, this story sounds like an official party leak to me, but if that’s case, it signals that there may be some interesting surprises in store during the next few months. Supposedly, as per a U.S. demand, Hariri will not be currying favor with Islamist groups in Tripoli by including any of their leaders on his lists. It also claims that the FM is confident about their chances in the upcoming elections, even in territories where the opposition is hoping to make some inroads.

Who knows what’s going to happen? In my opinion, the elections are more likely to produce a legislative stalemate than a strong mandate for either side. My forecast is somewhere on the order of a 55%-45% spread. A March 14th win — even with all the new parliamentarians that the FM is supposedly fielding — will probably mean that things will remain more or less the same in Lebanon. On the other hand, a March 8th win, at the very least, will compel some shuffling of the political furniture. While I disagree with some of the positions of several March 8th leaders, I think that their election would likely be healthier for Lebanon in the long run than the persistence of the status quo. Changes of the guard compel the creation of new political vocabularies. Competition in the political arena, when it is regulated and kept under control, provides a net benefit to the citizen.

In a way, I want to believe the leak. I’d like to believe that someone is actually taking into consideration the opinions of the Lebanese public in formulating an electoral strategy. Sadly, it really is too far-fetched to believe.

Any thoughts?

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