Hopeful signs in the Lebanon vote

The result will have its influence on Irans presidential polls and Israel


Most analysts had predicted that the Hezbollah-led coalition, already a crucial power broker in the Lebanese government because of its support from Shiites who make up a large part of Lebanon’s population, would win handily. In the end, though, the American-aligned coalition won 71 seats, while the Syria-Iranian aligned opposition, which includes Hezbollah, took only 57.

It is hard to draw firm conclusions from one election. But for the first time in a long time, being aligned with the US did not lead to defeat in West Asia. And since Lebanon has always been a critical testing ground, that could mark a possibly significant shift in regional dynamics with another major election, in Iran, on Friday.

With Obama’s speech on relations with Muslims still fresh in Lebanese minds, analysts point to steps the administration has taken since assuming office.

Washington is now proposing talking to Hezbollah’s patrons, Iran and Syria, rather than confronting them — a move that undermines the group’s attempt to demonise the US. The United States is also no longer pressing its allies in the Lebanese government to unilaterally disarm Hezbollah, which, given the party’s considerable remaining clout, could have provoked a crisis.

In fact, some analysts said that it was possible that Lebanon’s election could be a harbinger of Friday’s presidential race in Iran, where a hard-line anti-American president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may be losing ground to his main moderate challenger, Mir Hussein Moussavi.

While President Ahmadinejad has grown unpopular for many reasons, including his troubled stewardship of the economy, political analysts said that President Obama had blunted the appeal of Ahmadinejad’s confrontation with the West.

Moderating Israel

The results in Lebanon may also make it more difficult for Israel to capitalise on fears of Hezbollah dominance and shift the conversation away from the peace process with the Palestinians — a tactic that many analysts here attributed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

When Vice President Joseph R Biden Jr visited Lebanon in late May, and appeared to threaten withdrawal of financial aid if the opposition won, that was widely derided as a kiss of death. But now, some political analysts believe the vice president may have helped by crystallising for voters their choice: alliance with the US, France and the regional allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia; or with Iran and Syria and their allies, Hezbollah and Hamas.

The fear was that Lebanon might have become isolated like the Gaza Strip.
Final results showed that 54.8 per cent of eligible voters turned out, far higher than the 28 per cent who voted in 2005.

The Lebanese parliament will be divided almost exactly as it was, denying the new majority a mandate to govern alone. It has an increased legitimacy to form a government, but that legitimacy is largely symbolic. As a result, to preserve stability, the majority is likely to agree to a unity government that incorporates members of the opposition.

The biggest loser was a retired Christian general, Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. He entered into an alliance with Hezbollah and, had that alliance won, would have emerged as the most powerful Christian leader in the country. Instead, political analysts said that has emerged diminished.

While those internal details were being worked out, all eyes are expected to shift to Iran for Friday’s presidential election. An upset victory there for the challenger would not fundamentally alter Iran’s priorities, but it would be taken as another step in the moderation of the region.

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