June 9th, 2009
10:32 AM ET

What Lebanon's election means for us

Octavia Nasr
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Editor Mideast Affairs

Lebanon is a tiny country caught in the middle of aggressive, competing, dangerous powers. It made a major choice this week by voting for a majority in parliament that opposes Iran's and Syria's influences on the country. Like many in the Middle East, Lebanese people listened and liked what President Obama said in his address to Arabs and Muslims. The surprise results in Sunday's elections is a strong sign that a sizeable amount of Lebanese voters decided they much rather deal with a Lebanese government that's with Barack Obama than one that's against him.

Lebanon held its parliamentary elections for the 128-seat assembly pitting a US-supported coalition against one supported and funded by Iran. The result was a surprise majority win of 71 to 57 in favor of the pro-western coalition made up primarily of Sunni Muslims, Druze and Christians. Those two tiny numbers speak volumes about a country’s path, its people, their politics and their future. They might even influence the Iranian presidential election coming up later this month.

Hezbollah party workers in the southern town of Nabatiyah in anticipation of the elections on Sunday.

Hezbollah party workers in the southern town of Nabatiyah in anticipation of the elections on Sunday.

At face value, the 71-57 margin of victory means that the parliamentary majority will have a stronger say in determining the House Speaker required by the constitution to be a Muslim Shiite. The majority’s leader, Saad Hariri, is expected to be Lebanon’s next Sunni Prime Minister. Those two positions along with the Christian Maronite presidency make up Lebanon’s Executive Branch. It guarantees a balance of power among Lebanon’s main religions. It is also natural that the parliamentary majority will have the upper hand in determining who holds key portfolios in the new cabinet.

'March 14' coalition leader Saad Hariri claims victory after polls close Sunday.

'March 14' coalition leader Saad Hariri claims victory after polls close Sunday.

Leading up to the one-day elections, was an intense and expensive campaign that lasted about a year. Many analysts and observers were predicting the pro-Iranian militia Hezbollah to sit at the helm of this majority. Despite all hopes and predictions for Hezbollah and its coalition, the winds blew against their sail and they came at the bottom instead. Disappointing no doubt, but realistically not much will change for them. They are the only armed militia in Lebanon. They stood in the face of Israel on several occasions and showed that they can turn their weapons against their own people to get their way. Minority or not, Hezbollah’s weapons can threaten any balance at any time and there is a military takeover of the capital Beirut in May 2008 to prove it.

So, winning a majority in these elections is only a symbolic feat. It means some parts of Lebanon will celebrate while others will sit in shock trying to figure out what went wrong. But, when the smell of fireworks or real celebratory fire recedes, the Lebanese will wake up to the only reality that exists in Lebanon: The stark divisions of their country.

Lebanon is torn between one force pushing it to the future, helping it move on, prosper and open up for business. On the other hand, a force pulls it back, unable to forget the past but able instead to wage war and drag the country into the abyss of a failed divisive history. Those opposing forces exist in every coalition and within every religion.

Lebanon’s Christians are the U.S.'s main allies. They went into the elections more divided than ever. Now, in the aftermath, they remain divided unable to identify with one leader like the other religions do. The 71-57 margin proves that the Christian vote, which by its divisiveness was expected to tip the balance in favor of Hezbollah, proved to be inefficient at best.

Sunnis led by Saad Hariri came out the strongest harvesting the majority of seats with a coalition encompassing all religions and inclusive of some young candidates appealing to a new kind of voter - young and curious, spends time on social networking sites, longing for real change and keen to have a dialogue with the world. Christians in that coalition can now reap the benefits of their bloc’s victory.

The Shiites led by Hezbollah Secretary General, Hassan Nassrallah, showed unity as well. Hezbollah got the votes it had guaranteed without much effort. Their partner, retired Christian Maronite General Michel Aoun held on to his die-hard supporters’ vote but was unable to deliver the desired Christian vote to secure a victory for his Hezbollah coalition.

The Lebanese people spoke in unprecedented elections. Turn out was the highest in the history of Lebanon. Young people voted in impressive numbers, immigrants returned to cast their ballots, even the disabled and sick found a way to make it to their polling stations.

At the end, who really won? The government and its institutions won, Democracy won, the people won; and in the face of all that, the numbers pale. 71 seats for this coalition, or 58 for that one; it’s just a number that the people chose and the people alone made possible.

How long will this democratic nirvana last? How will the results affect Iranian elections? How will all these moving parts interact with a new U.S. administration that has serious and long term interests in the region? While it is clear that all things Middle East tie in together, it is too early to tell how the parts will interact with the whole.

Follow Octavia Nasr on Twitter @OctavianasrCNN

Filed under: 360° Radar • Global 360° • Hezbollah • Octavia Nasr
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. MariaNYC

    Right on Octavia. It was great to follow your tweets updating us over the weekend. With you we learn more about issues that are important in the Middle East, and in turn affect us here in the USA.

    Thank you for being so committed to keeping us updated of the Middle East affairs. I'm learning a lot about the region since I started following you on Twitter.

    June 9, 2009 at 5:45 pm |
  2. Mike in NYC

    Good points, Boston, but Obama is not a "great President." He's the President, and as such will pursue the usual strategic policy objectives. You should be prepared to admit this, and to oppose him on this basis as strongly as you would have any other President.

    I think the current "rift" between the US and Israel is just smoke and mirrors.

    June 9, 2009 at 4:08 pm |
  3. Boston, MA

    Anyone from South Lebanon would take strong offense at this article.

    You can state facts like Hezbollah has weapons but you cannot say that the Hariri bloc is progressive while Hezbollah (and subsequently their supporters) are backwards. You can't say that because being backed by the U.S., even with a great president like Obama, has never guaranteed progression or improvement. In fact, if we look at history, it's clear that be backed by the U.S. has, at best, been useless and at worst, led to a worst situation than the previous.

    The U.S. has backed dictators and corruption. Although there may be no dictators in Lebanon, they close their eyes to the HUGE amounts of corruption by those in power, who just so happen to be the U.S. backed March 14 coalition.

    Do you think Southern Lebanon or any inch of the country would have been freed without Hezbollah? No. Do you think that Israel is no longer a threat to Lebanon? It is. Do you think that if Hezbollah disarmed then Israel would become a friend? It would not. In fact, the Lebanese would be more vulnerable.

    I've been defending Hezbollah and I want to be clear that I don't support either side. The problem is that this article is blatantly slanted against Hezbollah as though whoever sides with the US is always doing the right thing. In fact, it's usually the right thing for politicians and the wrong thing for the people of the country.

    June 9, 2009 at 12:33 pm |
  4. Mike in NYC

    More pro-Obama media spin.

    The election turned largely because Joe Biden bought it. Elect the right people, you get US money. Don't, and you won't. Israeli war games right over the border might have played a role as well. All's fair, I guess.

    I'm still curious about the recent arrests of dozens of Lebanese who collaborated with Israel during the 2006 war. I interpreted that as Hezbollah exercising power behind the scenes. Despite their election loss, they are still the "Resistance," as the elder Hariri referred to them on at least one occasion.

    June 9, 2009 at 10:54 am |
  5. Ali Dahmash

    And there are some roumors today out of the Middle East that countries like Saudi Arabia have sent Lebanese expats back to Beirut to vote for Hariri with all travel expenses paid.

    June 9, 2009 at 10:43 am |
  6. Ali Dahmash

    Lebanon being the only true democracy in the Middle East brought everyone's attention. The West and moderate states in the Middle East do not want to see Iran and Syria regain popularity in Lebanon if the opposition win. The new members of Parliament are from the same influential families in Lebanon, different faces of the same coin. I think the Lebanese won't be so happy when they find out that the same group of corrupted people who steal public money are still in power. Lebanon has been living in a Developmeny freeze since the assisnation of Hariri, its time to move on.

    June 9, 2009 at 10:42 am |