The preliminary results of the first round of Lebanon’s municipal elections are in. Predictably, all sides are claiming victory, with Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement tabulating their wins at around 51% of all council seats, while Samir Geagea has confidently announced that a majority of Christians in the Mount Lebanon region support the March 14th alliance.
A dour mood prevails over in the Orange Room (the party’s online forum), strikingly reminiscent of the somber round of soul-searching that took place after the 2009 elections, when the opposition failed to win a commanding victory — as many pollsters had predicted. I often wonder whether this kind of discontent will ever bubble up from the rank-and-file and have some effect on the party’s broader political strategy. It’s hard to say, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the 2010 results create opportunities for new voices to be heard in Rabiyeh.
There are two standard narratives that one encounters when speaking to FPMers about the state of their party. The optimistic activists survey the last few years and see nothing short of a meteoric rise. Before 2005, the FPM’s leadership was in exile and its local members were consistently harrassed by the Lebanese and Syrian security forces. The party had no seats in parliament, no ministers, and only a handful of municipality members.
Today, the Syrian army has left Lebanon and the FPM is a force to be reckoned with. It oversees a 27-seat bloc in Parliament, five prominent ministries, and, as of this election, hundreds of municipality seats. Not bad for five years’ work.
The second narrative is far more cynical. The FPM, according to this reading, has become like every other Lebanese political party: corrupt, nepotistic, beholden to moneyed interests and foreign powers. The alliance with Hezbollah was viewed by some folks as a ground-breaking moment in Lebanon’s “post-sectarian” history but it was also regarded by just as many supporters as a necessary evil to make Aoun president. When this bid failed, the warm alliance with Syria became a source of disillusionment for those who viewed the relationship as purely political.
Meanwhile, the reform agenda that the FPM has always championed seems to have become bogged down by its political calculations. While it made a strong bid for instituting proportional representation in the municipal elections law, the party’s alliances with former nemeses like Michel al-Murr and the Kata’eb in various municipalities in Mount Lebanon have embittered many supporters. The FPM has also backpedaled on abolishing confessionalism in Lebanon, an issue which has strong support among university students and young professionals (the source of the party’s dynamism).
Perhaps the most persistent complaint, though, is the notion that the party is turning into a “House of Aoun”. Currently, many of the FPM’s most prominent figures are directly related to Michel Aoun. Gebran Bassil, the Minister of Energy, is his son-in-law, and Alain Aoun (his nephew) is an MP in Baabda. The head of OTV, Roy al-Hashim, is another son-in-law, and Aoun’s daughter Mireille is the head of Aoun’s political bureau. Many wonder about the fate of the party after the General, who is 75 years old, goes to that big barracks in the sky. Even if the FPM is left in the hands of Aoun’s relatives, can they be expected to pursue his current political line, or will the party begin to break apart into competing factions?
In my opinion, the FPM is an important political force in Lebanon, and one which has the potential to play a major role in pushing a reform agenda. I realize that there aren’t that many FPMers who comment on this blog, but I’m hoping that some of you may elect to join a stock-taking conversation about what is next for the party.