June 12, 2009
2009 Lebanese Parliamentary Elections
On June 7, the Saad Hariri-led March 14th Coalition captured seventy-one seats in Lebanon’s parliamentary election, allowing March 14 to retain control of the government. The Hezbollah-led March 8th Coalition won the remaining fifty-seven seats; no candidates outside these two coalitions won. Despite the defeat of the Hezbollah-led coalition, Hezbollah did win all eleven seats that it itself contested. About 54.8 percent of the 3.2 million eligible Lebanese voters (citizens aged 21 years or older) participated in the polls.
How Lebanon’s 2009 Parliamentary Elections Worked
In October 1989, the Lebanese National Assembly met in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia under the patronage of the Saudi government to negotiate an end to the country’s civil war. The meeting produced the Ta’if Accord, which, in addition to other terms of reconciliation, established the division of the Lebanese Parliament “equally among Christians and Muslims” and “proportionately between the denominations of each sect.” This agreement built upon the 1943 National Pact, which required public offices to be divided proportionately amongst the country’s sects according to the 1932 census. Despite the fact that, today, Lebanon’s Muslim and Christian populations hover around an estimated 70 and 30 percent, respectively, this political arrangement still exists (due to previous peace agreements, Lebanon has not conducted a census since 1932).
The Accord split parliament’s 128 seats equally between Christians and Muslims and subdivided seats further between 11 different religious sects, which, today, are all allocated between twenty-six electoral districts. Therefore most districts are represented by several members of parliament from different sects. For example, residents of the diverse Akkar district in Northern Lebanon receive representation from seven members of parliament, one of which must be an Alawite, two Greek Orthodox, three Sunni, and one Maronite. Before the May 2008 Doha Agreement split Lebanon into twenty-six districts, parliamentary seats came from fourteen geographic districts.
Unlike the 2005 parliamentary elections, which took place over four consecutive weekends, this year’s elections occurred on a single day. When going to the polls, a Lebanese voter could choose to vote for candidates of each religious sect running in the district, regardless of the voter’s own religious affiliation. For example, a Sunni voter in the Akkar district could vote for all seven seats in his district: one Alawite of his choice, two preferred Greek Orthodox candidates, three Sunnis, and one Maronite candidate.
To avoid such complexity, most voters go to the polls with “prepared ballots,” which list the names of coalition candidates from each sect in the district. The “prepared ballots” are usually prepared and distributed by coalition or party leaders within a specific district. However, at the poll, a voter can opt to fill out a blank ballot (or modify a prepared ballot) and choose candidates from different coalitions for each sectarian seat in the district. Most voters choose to use prepared ballots, however, making the division of a district’s seats between two coalitions unlikely and the election of a non-aligned candidate extremely rare. Out of the 26 districts this year, only three of them – Beirut 2, Metn, and Aley – split their seats between the two coalitions. The terms of an agreement forged after last May’s fighting in Beirut actually pre-determined the allocation of seats by each coalition for two of these split districts, Beirut 2 and Aley.
The Coalitions and the Election Results
All of the candidates that won seats in this year’s parliamentary elections did so under the banner of either the March 14th Coalition or the March 8th Coalition. The pro-West and Saudi-backed March 14th Coalition takes its name from the day in 2005 when thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, one month after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, father of current March 14th leader Saad Hariri. The March 14th Coalition has a number of affiliated parties: the Future Party (Sunni), Kataeb Reform Movement or Phalangist Party (Christian), Independent – Pro-Sovereignty (Christian / secular), the Progressive Socialist Party (Druze), Lebanese Forces (Christian), the National Liberation Party (Christian), and Social Democrat Hunchakian (Armenian).
The pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian March 8th Coalition, led by Hezbollah, derives its name from the day in 2005 when Hezbollah organized a mass pro-Syrian rally in Beirut to counter the momentum of anti-Syrian Hariri forces that fueled the “Cedar Revolution.” The main political parties affiliated with the March 8th Coalition are Hezbollah (Shia), Amal (Shia), the Free Patriotic Movement (Christian), Baath (Sunni), Tashnag (Armenian Orthodox), Marada (Christian), Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (Greek Orthodox / secular), and Independent – Syrian Ally.
According to official results, March 14th claimed an unambiguous electoral victory and maintained control of the government by winning seventy-one seats, one more than the seventy seats it held before the elections; sixty-five seats constitutes a majority. March 14th won twenty-four of the twenty-seven Sunni seats and eleven of the fourteen Greek Orthodox seats. March 8th won fifty-seven seats, one down from the fifty-eight seats it held prior to the election. Hezbollah won all eleven seats that it itself contested, and March 8th won twenty-four of the twenty-seven Shia seats.
The coalitions fought hardest for the eight Greek Catholic seats, which the two sides divided evenly; the eight Druze seats, of which March 14th took five; and the thirty-four Maronite seats, of which March 8th took nineteen.
Prior to the election, former Army Chief and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (Christian), Michel Aoun, hoped to expand March 8th's representation by picking up a large number of Christian seats; his party won 70 percent of the Christian vote in 2005. This year, however, the March 14th Coalition took thirty-nine of the sixty-four Christian seats. The districts of Beirut 1 and Zahle, where ten of the twelve combined seats belong to Christian sects, perhaps disappointed Aoun and March 8th, which suffered clean sweeps in both districts, the most. In the 2005 elections, March 8th and March 14th split the Zahle district, the only split district that year, with March 8th taking six of the seven seats. March 8th, however, did dominate the country’s Shia-heavy southern districts, as was widely expected. Of the nineteen combined seats in the three Beirut districts, much of which Hezbollah gunmen seized in May 2008, March 14 won all but two.
Reactions to the Lebanese Elections
In a televised address following the elections, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged defeat by stating, “We accept the official results with sportsmanship and in a democratic way.” He went on to congratulate all winners and acknowledged the opposition’s continued presence in parliament, “We accept the fact that the competition won a majority, while the opposition retained its presence in parliament.” He later went on to say, “I point to the collapse among the extensive lies, which were spread during the election campaign,” referring to fears that Hezbollah would attempt to sabotage the election using its militia. He continued on the subject, “These weapons are not to impose political realities. The people had their say freely.”
Nasrallah also pointed out the difference between a “popular majority” and a “parliamentary majority,” rationalizing that the majority of Lebanese may support the “resistance” despite March 8th’s loss. Hezbollah’s parliamentary leader Mohammed Raad, warned that the election results could return Lebanon to the chaos it suffered in 2008: “The results indicate that the crisis will continue, unless the majority changes its attitude.”
Although Nasrallah refused to discuss the formation of a unity government, saying the subject “needs [to undergo] consultation with all the members of the opposition,” he did make an oblique reference to his desire for a unity government: “We are facing all-level challenges; the cooperation by all parties is needed, and this is related to the will of other political groups.” In a post-election interview, Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General, Sheikh Naim Qassem, left open the question of participating in a unity government: “If the majority decides on a platform, a vision statement and performance management that is different from the previous phase and that opens new horizons, then the opposition will be on its side. If not, we will have a different position.”
In the same interview, Qassem refused to speak about the issue of veto authority for the opposition, a privilege dependent on holding more than one-third of the government’s cabinet seats. As a result of the unity government formed at the Doha talks in 2008, an initiative spurred by the takeover of parts of Beirut by Hezbollah after the Lebanese government threatened to shut down the group’s military communications network, the Hezbollah-led opposition acquired eleven of thirty possible cabinet seats, thus granting it veto authority The veto authority privilege gave the opposition the power to block any attempt by the Lebanese government to disarm Hezbollah’s militia. Raad stated that the status of the group’s weapons arsenal will not be open for negotiation: “The majority must commit not to question our role as a resistance party, the legitimacy of our weapons arsenal, and the fact that Israel is an enemy state.”
March 14th leader Saad Hariri said on election night, “In this election, there is no winner or loser…democracy won, and the biggest winner is Lebanon.” Hariri has yet to make any explicit commitments regarding a unity government, but after the elections, he did say he was open to “unconditional dialogue” with his political opponents and that “we'll see how we could unite our efforts during consultations with the President, who will have a say in the new cabinet that will be formed."
Other leaders of parties aligned with March 14th have expressed their desires more explicitly. The Lebanese Forces (Christian) leader, Samir Geagea, warned that giving the March 8th opposition veto powers could result in “complete paralysis” of Lebanon. He added, “If the other team wants to play the role of the opposition (and not take part in the government), then that is ok.”
Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader aligned with March 14th, said that he favored the participation of March 8th aligned parties in a unity government but emphasized that “[he is] part of a coalition. [The issue of a unity government] should be a unanimous decision.” In regards to giving the Hezbollah-led coalition veto authority, he stated succinctly, “I said no to the blocking minority.” Jumblatt also addressed the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons arsenal: “We should incorporate, slowly but surely, the weapons of Hezbollah inside the Lebanese army, and the decision of war and peace should be taken only by the Lebanese state.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Lebanese elections, regional reaction remained diplomatic in nature. Iran, Hezbollah’s strongest external ally and supporter, had not released an official statement at the time of publication (read more on Iran's ties with Hezbollah). However, an Iranian newspaper with links to the regime, Mashhad’s Qods Online, ran a scathing analysis of the election, alleging vote-buying on the part of the March 14 Coalition and schemes by Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United States to try to swing the election in favor of March 14. Amongst the accusations, the paper claimed that the Saudi and Egyptian-run media molded public opinion in favor of March 14, Israel sent text messages to voters warning of the implications of a Hezbollah victory, Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Lebanon reinvigorated pro-Western factions, and Saudi Arabia helped fund March 14th’s campaign. Finally, the piece concluded that the “triangle of Tehran-Damascus-Beirut [will not] be weakened.” A week prior to the election, Nasrallah exclaimed that if Hezbollah triumphed at the polls, “The Islamic Republic of Iran, and in particular Ayatollah Khamenei, will not hold back on anything that will help Lebanon be a strong and dignified state, and without condition.”
Official responses from Iran’s two other primary partners, Syria and HAMAS, took cordial tones. A day after Syria’s ruling Baath Party newspaper alleged fraud and vote-buying on the part of Saad Hariri and his coalition, a political and communications advisor for President Bashar Assad stated that “the Lebanese elections are an internal Lebanese matter,” and expressed “Syria’s satisfaction over the safe and stable course of the elections.” In a phone call to the Lebanese President on June 10, Assad said that the elections reflected “the spirit of harmony that prevailed in Lebanon.”
HAMAS leader Ismail Haniyeh, maintained a similar tone: "What happened is the victory of democracy, the victory of freedom of expression, political pluralism, and peaceful handover of authority. We wish for Lebanon, the Lebanese nation, and all the winners of this election to provide Lebanon with protection as an Arab power and a strong region in the face of the Israeli occupation.”
Israel, Hezbollah’s enemy in the 2006 war, appeared cautiously optimistic about the election results. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, "The victory of the moderate camp in Lebanon is a positive sign, but we ought to see how the new government conducts itself, and in accordance with this we will decide what our position will be." An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman warned that it is “incumbent upon any government that is formed in Beirut to ensure that Lebanon will not be used as a base for violence against the State of Israel and against Israelis.... Israel considers the Lebanese government responsible for any military or otherwise hostile activity that emanates from its territory.”
Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Sunni rival in the region, reportedly spent “hundreds of millions of dollars” to help elect anti-Hezbollah candidates through campaign financing and alleged vote-buying heading into the election. Upon learning of the results, the Kingdom expressed its satisfaction in the elections for “the contending parties' support for maintaining calm, keeping Lebanon unified and accepting the will of the people.” Newspapers run by the Saudi royal family, however, offered more pointed reactions. The al-Sharq al-Awsat, for instance, ran the headline: “Nasrallah Justifies, Apologizes, then Accepts Defeat.” In Egypt, a Sunni country that has spent the last year uncovering alleged Hezbollah cells throughout its country, President Mubarak reportedly welcomed the election results in phone calls to both Saad Hariri and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
The current Lebanese parliament, whose members serve four-year terms, will expire on June 20, at which time formal consultations to determine the composition of the next government will begin.