The Media Gets The Lebanese Elections Wrong

"A victory for Lebanon's anti-government opposition!" trumpeted the headlines in the Lebanese and foreign media yesterday after Sunday's special parliamentary by-elections in Beirut.

Technically, this was partially true. The opposition did indeed one of the two contested seats which were up for grabs to replace the two assassinated members of parliament who were both members of the pro-government coalition and vocal opponents of Syria, whom many blame for their murders.

However, unlike the news organizations claimed, the opposition win says little about Lebanon's relations with the West, or major changes in Lebanese politics.

Despite the parades of young men on motorbikes driving through the city honking their horns and blaring patriotic songs, turnout was low in the voting to fill the seat of Beirut's pro-government, pro-American assassinated MP Walid Eido - with only approximately 18% of those eligible voting.

Most Beirutis paid little attention to the elections. The result - the pro-government, pro-American candidate Muhammad Amin Itani won in a landslide, receiving nearly 20,000 more votes than his opponent in an election where only 25,000 people voted.

Supporters of the government had feared that Shia in Beirut would support the opposition candidate and give a formidable challenge to Itani. However, Hezbollah did not support a candidate, and it seemed that most of the Shia in the southern suburbs - like most of the voters - couldn't be bothered to leave their villages on a Sunday afternoon to cast a ballot. They decided to enjoy the weekend and skip the electoral brouhaha.

The gloom-and-doom headlines were fueled by the results of the elections in the heavily Christian Metn region, a mountainous suburban district next to Beirut, which were fiercely contested.

It was an emotional contest with former president Amin Gemayel running for the seat of his son, Pierre, the anti-Syrian parliamentarian who was shot leaving a church last November.

Government supporters were indeed disappointed when the final count came in on Monday - and it turned out that Gemayel had narrowly lost the election to the little-known Kamil Khoury, who was backed by the pro-Syrian Christian leader Michel Aoun.

Unlike the Beirut campaign, this was a fiercely contested race, and nearly 45% of eligible voters cast their ballots for a total of nearly 75,000 votes. In the end Gemayel lost a mere 418 votes -- 39,534 to 39,116 -- hardly a landslide.

Despite the fact that the result reduced the pro-government majority in the parliament to five seats, the battle as it was waged in Metn was not about support for the government or about Western alliances as much as it was about who will lead Lebanese Christians in negotiating with the Sunni, Shia, and Druze.

Metn voter Jessy Choueiri explained, "In this area, we are all pro-American. Some of us have French citizenship. The majority voted for Sarkozy by a lot. The debate is not about the West. It is about Christian leadership in Lebanon."

The opposition campaigned with the slogan that the real battle was over the best way to create a strong, democratic Lebanon with a Christian face.

They positioned themselves as the mavericks. After all, the pro-government candidate, Amin Gemayel, was as representative of the old guard as one could get. He was President of Lebanon in the 1980s, his brother was elected president, and his father founded one of the major Christian political parties before Lebanese independence. The family carries the title Sheikh, which distinguishes them as a noble family.

According to the opposition, Gemayel sold out Christians during the war, and continues to fail Christians. They claim that he represents the interests of the elites, and serves the interests of the rich Sunni Muslim elite more than he serves the Lebanese Christian common man.

The opposition candidate, Pierre Khoury, a political unknown, is not from a prominent family, and is not a member of the Lebanese elite. His movement's leader, former Army Commander Michel Aoun, founded his political party, the Free Patriotic Movement, to challenge the traditional Lebanese political establishment. Aoun says he does not want backroom politics in cigar-smoke filled rooms deciding who runs Lebanon. He claims to want a democratic solution to Lebanon's problems.

The pro-government coalition advocates a vision of a Lebanon without terror, blackmail, lies, and Iranian and Syrian influence. The choice of Amin Gemayel was their candidate was simple and sentimental - who better than the father to replace an assassinated son? His candidacy represented the pro-government position of refusing to live in a country in which the parliamentary majority is determined by assassinating democratically elected officials.

The pro-government forces view Michel Aoun as a divisive figure who will do anything to become president, even if it means attacking the recently assassinated.

They claim he supports political unknowns because they have no constituencies of their own, and thus owe their entire political careers to him, giving Aoun a rubber stamp within his political faction rather than giving voice to concerns of average citizens.

Gemayel's supporters believe that the only way to strengthen Lebanon is to bring Lebanese factions together in negotiations over common interests, rather than relying on violence, war, and political blackmail to achieve their goals. Gemayel supporter Nadim Khoury claims, "What we want is a peaceful Lebanon that does not go to war. We want a strong country in which the sects work together and have more than one leader. This is democracy, not giving one Christian the power of a whole community."

Certainly, Aoun's alliance with Hezbollah was a factor in the electoral battle.

Pro-government voter Jad Aswad declared, "I cannot vote for a party allied with Hezbollah. Hezbollah ruined this country. How can you protect them?"

But not every government supporter agreed. Another voter, Lina H. argued that "Aoun's alliance is not about supporting Hezbollah. It is about giving Christians their right place in Lebanon any way he can."

Aoun, naturally, was jubilant after the vote, telling journalists that "They just can't beat me." And the Syrian media naturally celebrated Khoury's victory. But Khoury's win would have had to be far more sweeping and decisive to justify Aoun's claim that he has been anointed the new leader of Lebanese Christians.

Anyone who points to these close election results and claims it represents a major groundswell of support for Aoun, Hezbollah, or the Syrians is mistaken. The only thing the Metn elections prove is that, despite everything, Lebanese democracy is healthy and thriving.

Charles Chuman is a media and political analyst currently in Beirut