This is a question that one hears frequently these days in Beirut. If you haven’t heard it yet, be assured that in a couple of months, it will be all anybody is talking about.
Why? Because there is a legitimate possibility, some would say probability, that the Lebanese opposition will become the majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Leading the opposition is Hizbullah, who will finally emerge from the wilderness to bestride the narrow world of Lebanese politics like a Colossus, fulfilling Khomeini’s vision on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Or at least, this is the spooky doomsday scenario that many in March 14th (and in Bkirkeh) are trying to paint. They suggest that, at best, a win for the opposition will compromise Lebanon’s economic lifeline to America, Europe, and the wealthy Gulf states; at worst, it will create a Hamas/Fatah-style schism, dragging the country into yet another fratricidal conflagration.
Strangely enough, I actually enjoy having no idea about what is going to happen in the so-called fateful elections of June 7th. Call me quaint, but isn’t this the whole point of a democratic contest (even if Lebanon’s electoral laws all but preclude such a thing as a true democratic contest)? Just for the sake of argument, though, let’s take the thrill out and play the “what if” game. What if Hizbullah “wins”? What would change, for all practical purposes? How would Lebanon’s diplomatic relations and strategic position be affected?
First of all, it should be clear that a “win” means two things: (1) a parliamentary majority for the March 8th alliance; (2) the maintenance of that alliance and the successful formation of a national unity government (with all the challenges that this implies in the context of Lebanon’s consociational framework). Hizbullah and its ally AMAL are already more or less guaranteed a monopoly of the parliament’s Shiite seats. This alone, however, is not enough to give them a majority, which is where Michel Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement come in. With a strong showing in districts like Jbeil, Keserwan, Baabda, Jezzine, and especially Zahle and Achrafieh, the FPM could put the March 8th alliance over the top, earning it a slim majority (probably no more than the 56% that March 14th holds in the current parliament).
If March 8th wins 65 seats or more, it will be able to choose the prime minister, although it is not clear to what degree March 14th will be able to indirectly influence the choice, given that it represents a majority of Lebanese Sunnis (for whom the PM serves as a kind of de facto president). The choice of PM will set the tone for everything that follows. If an old-guard figure like Omar Karami is chosen, this may encourage the Future Movement and its allies to adopt a recalcitrant stance vis-à-vis the new government, claiming it as a return to the days when Syria controlled Lebanon. They may choose to boycott the new cabinet (as Walid Jumblatt has already threatened to do), making it difficult for the new PM to form a national unity government. In doing so, March 14th would be taking a page from Hizbullah’s playbook, duplicating the 2006 strategy of withdrawing ministers as a way of emptying the resulting cabinet of legitimacy, in order to win the right to a blocking veto.
The problem with this strategy, however, is that Hizbullah has already made it clear that they will give a veto to March 14th should they become the opposition. To make use of this veto, March 14th would have to join the government and work under a March 8th PM. In the event of a choice like Karami or Salim al-Hoss, chances are good that the fight over cabinet seats will be a long and ugly one. If a compromise candidate were chosen (someone close to both March 14th and Syria, like Najib Miqati), a less combative ethos might prevail.
One hates to rehearse the old commonplace about Lebanese politics being orchestrated by outside powers, but it is difficult to see how the choice of Lebanon’s next prime minister will not be significantly affected by the state of relations between Syria, Iran, and the United States. If Syria has gotten some traction with the Obama administration, it may be willing to do some confidence building by looking kindly on the choice of a Miqati or a Safadi as PM in Lebanon. If relations remain tepid, however, the most likely candidate is probably going to be Karami.
So what happens after the cabinet is formed? How will the United States and Europe deal with a government “led” by Hizbullah? Will they withdraw their ambassadors, put their diplomatic relations and economic assistance on hold, and set up a trade embargo? In other words, will they treat Lebanon like Hamas and Syria? Given that George W. Bush is gone, the answer is: probably not. Much more likely is the establishment of a slightly awkward condominium, whereby the U.S. has no contact with Hizbullah’s ministers, relying on dependable intermediaries like Nabih Berri, Fawzi Salloukh, and the new PM to do business.
Ironically, this arrangement will suit Hizbullah just fine, giving the party an excuse to remain behind the curtain and to leave the politicking to Berri and Aoun. In effect, therefore, something like the arrangement reached in 2005 between Hizbullah, Hariri, and Jumblatt will obtain again (whereby the Hizb stays out of economic affairs in exchange for March 14th staying out of resistance affairs), except now the arrangement will be between Hizbullah and Aoun. Given how precarious this agreement proved to be in 2005-09, it’s not clear how solid it will be this time around.
While the FPM gladly yoked its aspirations to Hizbullah’s wagon after 2006, most Aounists I know remain uneasy about Hizbullah’s weapons. They may talk publicly about the necessity of a credible “national defense” in the face of Israeli aggression, but privately they remain deeply suspicious of Syria and Iran and strongly opposed to the use of Lebanon as a battleground in the conflict with Israel. Aoun was able to sell his alliance with the Hizb to his supporters by pitching it as a containment strategy. Another security incident like the 2006 border operation would give Aoun’s Christian opponents all the ammunition they need to call his strategy into question.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Israel. One regular commentator on this blog likes to say that a Hizbullah parliamentary victory would be in Israel’s interests because it would “clarify things”, meaning that Israel would finally have an address for Hizbullah. The “state-within-the-state” would simply become “the state”, and Israel would not miss the opportunity to remind the Lebanese public of the consequences of voting for the wrong party, just as it has tried to do with Hamas.
However, it seems more likely that neither Israel nor the United States would have much of an interest in pursuing the aggressively isolationist or military option, as this strategy would yield few tangible gains while playing directly into the hands of the “resistance axis”, as we have seen over the past three years. Given that Obama has already signalled to Nabih Berri that he is looking forward to “working together” over the next four years, the smart money says that the U.S. will seek to keep Hizbullah on the tightrope by dealing with its allies and offering carrots to its sponsors, while holding out the tacit threat of making things difficult for Lebanon should Hizbullah step out of bounds.
At the end of the day, a Hizbullah victory potentially represents an important step toward the eventual demilitarization and nationalization of the party, as it could provide an avenue for the gradual political enfranchisement of Lebanese Shiites. If a Syrian-Israeli peace deal is struck within the next few years, Hizbullah will be able to integrate the Resistance into the Lebanese Armed Forces, having passed the baton of its local capital from its military to its political wing.