The newspapers, morning radio, and political talk shows are lately focused on several burning issues: wire-tapping in the Ministry of Telecommunications, the budget of the Council for the South, and four Iranian diplomats who were murdered 27 years ago.
Earth-shattering, isn’t it?
This is what electoral politics amounts to in Lebanon these days: minor flaps countered in kind. The wiretapping issue looks like a pretty well-engineered attempt to tarnish Gebran Bassil, Minister of Telecommunications and son-in-law of General Michel Aoun, with the charges of allowing illegal wiretapping to take place at the ministry, as well as preventing access by the Internal Security Forces to “communication reviews” that may contain important information related to recent criminal activities. Given that Bassil has been positioning himself as the hard-bargain-driving champion of working-class Lebanon who managed to get the government and the phone companies to slash their exorbitant cellular rates (just in time for the elections!) M14 is surely looking for a way to put a dent in his image by bringing all of this up.
Meanwhile, disagreements between M14 and M8 have focused on the budget of the Council for the South, one of the various majalis used by Lebanon’s political heavyweights (i.e. Hariri, Berri, Hizbullah, and Jumblatt) as personal cashboxes for politically-motivated government spending. Ex-premier Salim al-Hoss called for disbanding them all and replacing them with a centralized Ministry of Planning that would be responsible for all reconstruction and development activity. Sounds like a good idea. Will it happen? Probably not. Much more likely is that the dispute will be settled in the time-honored Lebanese tradition of wheeling and dealing, embodied by the proverb: la yamoot al-deeb, wa la yafnaa l-ghanam (“may the wolf not die, nor the sheep perish”).
Like these two issues, the re-emergence of the story of the four Iranian diplomats looks like an odd attempt by Hizbullah to muss up Samir Geagea’s hair… even though none of Geagea’s supporters (or anyone else I know, for that matter) probably care about what happened to the diplomats. It was, after all, 27 years ago. Why are they so important, and why mention Iran more often than you have to? I have to admit that it struck me as an uncharacteristically clumsy move by the Sayyed, who usually picks his battles carefully and wisely.
The only electoral issue of any serious consequence — to my mind — is the debate about the so-called centrist bloc. Much is being made of the proposed formation of a third political stream of “independent” candidates who may or may not be allied to the President. March 8 (and specifically, the Aounists) are anxious about the independents because they represent a threat — unclear how serious — to the FPM’s Christian candidates, particularly in the Metn, where MP Michel al-Murr (the dean of the independents) has a strong following. It’s the Ralph Nader effect, except it might actually make a difference.
Predictably, the Aounists are casting doubt on the neutrality of the independents, labeling them as little more than wolves in sheep’s clothing (yes, those same wolves and sheep), and making the point loud and clear that a vote for an “independent” is a vote for March 14. Meanwhile, March 14 is welcoming the formation of the centrist bloc for the same reasons that March 8 is shunning it.
Who comes out on top here? Probably March 14. The Aounists find themselves in the unenviable position of appearing to be against democratic pluralism; there is just no way to put a positive spin on that. Furthermore, people like Ibrahim Kanaan (who is an otherwise shrewd and reasonable politician) sound silly in arguing that a centrist Christian bloc should only be formed if the other parties also allow centrist blocs from their own sects to compete. This begs the question: who is preventing such blocs from emerging? The answer is the powerful parties themselves, through their patronage networks, and this applies to al-Mustaqbal and the PSP just as much as it does to Hizbullah and Amal. So the FPM is facing an uphill battle here. Murr’s defection from the Change and Reform Bloc last year was nobody’s fault but Aoun’s, and he’s going to have to live with it.
In the end, it matters little that Aoun is right: the centrists will probably not be true independents. But this is Lebanon, and that would be too much to ask.
In other news, the Daily Star is back! According to its website, the hiatus was “caused by a legal dispute with Standard Chartered Bank. Although [The Daily Star] did its best to achieve a negotiated settlement, the bank insisted on using the courts as a means of applying pressure.” Not much else is provided in the way of explanation. Has the dispute been resolved? Will the Star set again in the near future? We’ll have to wait and see.