Hezbollah Is Humbled, But Not Defeated

Hezbollah and its allies in the March 8 coalition failed to win a majority of seats in the 2009 Lebanese parliamentary elections, losing to the incumbent March 14 coalition. The elections give the March 14 coalition an invigorated mandate, and are a vote of confidence in March 14's vision for Lebanon's future regional and international relations.

However, the March 8 coalition's strong electoral showing (it controls 45% of parliamentary seats -- 57 seats out of a total of 128), the nature of Lebanon's sectarian political system, and Hezbollah's weapons and previous willingness to violently undermine the government mean that Hezbollah will most likely be included in a national unity government. The debate over the future governance of Lebanon is far from over.

March 14's victory puts to rest myths and theories propagated in the March 8 and Syrian press in the years after 2005 parliamentary elections. There is now no doubt that March 14 enjoys nationwide support across sectarian, regional, and class boundaries. Voters do not appear to believe that the 2005-2008 March 14 government was too extreme, too pro-Western, too pro-Sunni/Saudi, or pro-Israel. It also indicates that voters reject a return of Syrian influence in Lebanon and a rejection of closer relations with Iran.

In a televised speech on Monday, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah conceded the March 8 coalition's defeat, but said that Hezbollah would not tolerate any discussion of disarming it and bringing the Iranian backed party under the rule of the Lebanese government. The soon to be formed March 14 government will likely have to concede Hezbollah's "right" to "defend" the country against Israel, thus placing the Lebanese government in a precarious position in the event of a war with Israel.

Given that Shia voters overwhelmingly support Hezbollah and Amal (another Shia political party allied with Hezbollah) the parties will likely enter into the new government and be offered cabinet ministries so as not to alienate and indirectly disenfranchise a community that makes up 1/3 of the Lebanese population.

The Lebanese parliamentary system allots seats based on religion, with half of the 128 parliamentary seats allocated to Christians, and the other half divided between Sunni, Shia, Druze, and others. The electoral districts and the sectarian composition of the districts are gerrymandered prior to each election in an electoral law enacted by the outgoing parliament. The 2009 parliamentary districts significantly differ from the 2005 districts, with the creation of smaller, predominantly Christian districts.

The 2009 electoral law was formulated at the Doha Accords, which occurred after Hezbollah and its allies violently stormed Beirut in May 2008. March 8 Christian leader Michel Aoun has claimed that he authored the Doha electoral law, gerrymandering it to his advantage, and boasted that he would win the largest parliamentary bloc in Lebanese history. Aoun failed in his quest, with March 14 winning in many regions where Aoun was believed to have the advantage.

The election was most vigorously contested in Christian regions. Shia voters overwhelmingly support March 8 factions Hezbollah and Amal. A majority of Sunni voters support the Future Movement, the largest party in the March 14 coalition, while the Druze overwhelmingly support the March 14 coalition partnered Progressive Socialist Party.

Christians, however, split their support between various national, regional, and local political parties and personalities.

Christian voters gave March 14 its victory. Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) lost considerable support among Christians, but because of the Doha redistricting, still won more seats than his party did in the 2005 elections. Districts he won overwhelmingly in 2005, he won in 2009 with only a small margin.

Districts in north Lebanon in which he allegedly had significant support ended up electing March 14 candidates with a comfortable margin.

The Free Patriotic Movement candidates in the south Lebanon district of Jezzine appear to have won thanks to Shia Hezbollah supporters.

FPM candidates elected in the suburban Beirut district of Baabda appear to have won their seats based primarily on support from Shia voters, not Christians. It appears that heavy Sunni turnout in Zahle, the largest Christian city in the Middle East, provided March 14 Christian candidates with a comfortable lead.

This is the way system is intended to work. Muslim voters are intended to elect some Christian parliamentarians, because Christians do not represent half of the population of Lebanon even though they are allocated half of the parliamentary seats. However, winning Christian parliamentary seats primarily through Shia support while losing the Christian vote in those districts undermines Aoun's claims that he is the sole legitimate representative of Lebanon's Christian community. Political analyst and talk show host Nadim Koteich contends on his blog, "Aoun [can] barely claim the representation of 30% of the Christians, compared to the proclaimed 70% of the 2005 election."

The electoral results took most analysts and the Lebanese public by surprise. The March 14 coalition appeared to have difficulties in the weeks leading up to the elections. These included excessive deliberations and public squabbles in choosing candidates, a March 14 leader caught on tape criticizing his coalition partners and Christian voters, and accusations of vote buying.

The March 8 coalition portrayed itself as the inevitable winner, a psychological device some analysts claim was intended to discourage Lebanon's large diaspora population from flying home to vote.

However, March 8 grandstanding also seems to have had the inverse affect. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made a series of pronouncements that many Lebanese thought overexposed the leading cleric and frightened voters on the fence. Nasrallah called Hezbollah's violent 2008 incursion into Beirut a "glorious day" that saved Lebanon from civil war, whereas most voters thought precisely the opposite. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statements contending that a Hezbollah victory would open up a new front in the Iranian campaign against Israel does not seem to have encouraged many Lebanese to support the March 8 coalition.

Analysts, commentators, and bloggers are divided over whether or not U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's and U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden's separate visits to Lebanon had any effect on the elections.

Ron Rosenbaum contends that President Obama's speech to the Muslim world from Cairo might have been an attempt to influence the Lebanese elections.

Even if the electorate did not respond to the statements of support from American officials, March 14 politicians were personally invigorated with the knowledge that they would have U.S. support, and thus did not need to compromise their beliefs for fear that the U.S. would allow a return of Syrian overlordship.

In the end, the March 14 coalition and the March 8 coalition have the exact same number of parliamentary seats as resulted from the 2005 elections, but March 14 can now govern with an invigorated mandate.

The humbled March 8 coalition will likely have a much more difficult time opposing the March 14 agenda, and a repeat of Hezbollah's May 2008 attack is unlikely.

The next battle will be over the creation of the government and cabinet.