Anti-Syria Opposition Alliance Declares Victory in Parliamentary Elections
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MARGARET WARNER: Lebanon’s main anti-Syria opposition alliance promised sweeping changes today after nailing a victory in yesterday’s fourth and final round of parliamentary elections. Saad Hariri, who heads the alliance, spoke with reporters after unofficial results showed his group sweeping all of the seats at stake yesterday in the north.
SAAD HARIRI: We are following the footsteps that my father has begun. His political program and his economic program is to have a country where it has a legal system that is free. It has — that we need to have growth. In order to have growth we need to change a lot of laws in parliament.
MARGARET WARNER: Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in February, sparking massive protests in Lebanon. Demonstrators called for political change and an end to nearly 30 years of Syrian military occupation and de-facto rule.
The opposition charged Syria had arranged for Hariri’s killing after Hariri broke with Damascus over his opposition to extending the term of the pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahud. Damascus denied any role in his death, but in April, under mounting international pressure, Syria pulled out its 15,000 troops.
Lebanon’s staggered parliamentary elections began on May 29. The polling, held over four weekends in four different areas, reflected the age-old political tensions among the country’s many religious and ethnic sects.
In the first round, Saad Hariri’s anti-Syrian alliance of Sunni Muslims, Druze and Christians ran strongly in cosmopolitan Beirut. In the second round, in the South, the voters favored the pro-Syrian Shiite Muslim groups, Amal and Hezbollah. The third round, in the Christian heartland of Mount Lebanon, saw a bizarre twist.
MARGARET WARNER: A former anti-Syrian figure, the Maronite Christian Army General Michel Aoun, who’d just returned from 14 years in exile, allied himself with local pro-Syrian politicians and won. Aoun denied accusations that he was acting on Syria’s behalf.
GEN. MIICHEL AOUN (Translated): I am extremist in defending the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon, defending justice and the rights of the Lebanese people.
MARGARET WARNER: Whatever his motives, Aoun seemed poised to deny Hariri’s slate a parliamentary majority. But in yesterday’s fourth and final round, in the northern mountains long dominated by rival Christian and Muslim warlords, Hariri’s coalition staged its unexpectedly strong comeback. The results mean Hariri’s slate should control 72 seats in Lebanon’s new 128-member parliament. Still to be determined: A new prime minister and cabinet and the fate of pro-Syrian President (Emile) Lahud.
MARGARET WARNER: So what explains the opposition’s victory, and what will it mean for Lebanon’s political future? For that we’re joined by: Adib Farha, a former adviser to Rafik Hariri and now a Middle East political analyst, and David Ignatius, a foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post who’s covered Lebanon since the early 1980s, and he was there earlier this month. Welcome to you both.
Mr. Farha, first of all, what does explain the opposition sweeping these elections yesterday? I mean going into yesterday’s election it didn’t look like they could get enough to get a majority in parliament.
ADIB FARHA: Well, it’s only natural that after being dominated by Syria for 15 years what happened yesterday in the outcome of yesterday’s round was the natural thing. The outcome of the previous round where Michel Aoun who had allied himself with Syria’s friends and Syria’s allies was the unnatural one, so yesterday’s outcome was — in my opinion — was predictable. Of course, things were made worse by anti-sectarian sentiments. Unfortunately all parties are guilty of that — winners and losers alike.
MARGARET WARNER: David Ignatius, even though our pictures showed a lot of Lebanese flags being waved I gather that in this final round up in the north some of the old flags from back in your days there came out again from the different militias. Did this election process exacerbate sectarian tensions and is that troubling?
DAVID IGNATIUS: You know, I don’t think it exacerbated them. They’re still there. The flags are still being kept and the arms are still in the basement even though the militias in theory have disarmed.
But I don’t think you should make too much of that. I think that what’s happened in Lebanon really ought to be seen as a significant, really exciting, break with the past. Syrian troops have left after 29 years. If I had said to you a year ago that that was going to happen, you would have laughed at me, but it’s happened. And the reason that it’s happened is because Lebanese across confessional lines — Christians, Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites — all were just enraged by the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a man that they loved.
And they just decided enough. We’re not going to put up with this anymore. They’ve lived through a history of blood like this. Often, they’ve submitted to pressure from Syria and other outside forces. This time they said no. And I think that’s the spirit that carried through to the result that was announced yesterday.
MARGARET WARNER: And so do you think that’s what was at play in the north yesterday in the votes because it didn’t look as if this one coalition could win all those at first. Though, you say you weren’t surprised.
ADIB FARHA: Yesterday was a vote against continued foreign interference.
MARGARET WARNER: By Syria?
ADIB FARHA: By Syria. It was a rejection of Michel Aoun’s – you know, the former exiled prime minister, army commander before.
MARGARET WARNER: Who had done well in round three.
ADIB FARHA: You know, it was – you know, people rejected the fact that, you know, they had respected him for 15 years as someone who was fighting for the liberation of Lebanon and getting rid of the Syrian dominance. He came back to Lebanon.
It is commonly believed by people who don’t like him that he struck a deal with the Syrians or at least with the pro-Syrian Lebanese president and here he is reaching out to Syria’s allies. So he’s betrayed the program — the platform that he had ran against for the last 15 years.
MARGARET WARNER: But you had said earlier that you thought each of these groups in a way ended up winning what they won by appealing to the sectarian divide.
ADIB FARHA: That’s true.
MARGARET WARNER: So do you think the glass on that point is half-empty or half- full? In other words, do you share David’s more optimistic perhaps view?
ADIB FARHA: I think there are good things that came out of the elections overall and bad things. The good thing is it confirmed that democracy in Lebanon is very much alive and that the Lebanese are attached to democracy. And the external presence had marred their democracy, but now that, thanks to the international community, the foreign occupier is out, you know, we’re eager to practice it again.
The other positive thing is that the group that now has the majority is strongly anti-Syrian and determined to bring in reforms: structural reforms, political reforms, economic reforms. The down side is that to get to this outcome, all parties were guilty of enticing sectarian sentiments.
MARGARET WARNER: So how united is Saad Hariri’s coalition?
DAVID IGNATIUS: Not very. I think people are excited about change. He has an actual working majority in parliament. I think that there are fractures in this movement.
And what Adib says is true. I mean, one thing this election reminded us of is that each sectarian group unites around its own. The Sunnis united around Saad Hariri. One of the first round the Shiite, the two militias, Amal and Hezbollah hate each other, but they united in the second round. In the third round, the Christians grouped around Aoun. So that’s certainly true.
But now the question is: how does this country first, get strong enough to keep the Syrians out? I think the first task for this new government will be to find a way to strengthen security, get new people in the security services, get these Syrian intelligence agents out, and really take hold of the country, and then put together a real reformist government.
Lebanon is a very corrupt country. And every Lebanese knows it. It’s time that they break with that. A symbol of this — just to finish — is the election of a new speaker in parliament. Nabih Berri, who was the head of the Shiite Moshe Amal has been the speaker; he’s the symbol of the old pro-Syrian ways. If they can get him out, and that’s what the Americans are urging in Beirut today, if they can get him out that’s a big break.
ADIB FARHA: More than likely – if I can interject — more than likely though even though the majority of the elected members of parliament do not favor Nabih Berri because of the sectarian system that we have, it is not politically wise, not good for national unity, you know, for — since the presidency is assigned to a Christian, the speaker of the parliament is to a Muslim Shiite, it is not wise to elect a Muslim Shiite who does not have the overwhelming support of the Shiites.
Nabih Berri, whether we like it or not, and I’m not necessarily a fan of his, you know, does have the support of all 35 Shiite members of parliament. Therefore, more than likely the remainder of the other members of parliament, even though they’re a majority, they’re not going to go against the will of that sect to whom this seat is assigned unfortunately.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you think this will mean for Syrian influence? I mean, as we know after the troops left they still retained quite a bit of influence including through controlling parliament. Will this really be a setback for them, or does this government have a lot work ahead?
DAVID IGNATIUS: You know, it’s a huge setback for Syria and also an opportunity for Syria. Syria was caught in the kind of corrupt, decaying system of its own influence. It was trapped in Lebanon as much as it was dominating Lebanon. And I was in Damascus just before going to Beirut to look at the elections. I didn’t hear a Syrian who didn’t express some measure of relief that that chapter was over.
The pressure on Syria to reform now is really quite overwhelming. Lebanon is going to accelerate, I think, in this new period. It has very strong support from the United States and France. And Syria really cannot afford to be as isolated as it is. So that’s the next — I don’t want to say the next domino — that sounds triumphalist, but that’s the next issue.
MARGARET WARNER: Back to Lebanon. What about Saad Hariri himself, does he want to become prime minister?
ADIB FARHA: I don’t think he’s made up his mind yet. If he wants to be prime minister, he certainly has a large enough bloc of votes to get him to be prime minister. However, those of us who like him and who wish him well would much rather see him defer taking the mantle of the prime ministership until he has a bit more experience under his belt.
MARGARET WARNER: Because in fact we didn’t say this in the set-up but he’s only been back really spending time in the country for a very short time.
ADIB FARHA: Well since — you know, he had been a very successful businessman running his father’s business empire primarily out of Saudi Arabia. And he was catapulted into this political role after his father’s assassination on Valentine’s Day.
MARGARET WARNER: What is U.S. interest here? What does the U.S. mostly care about in the coming year, say, in Lebanon?
DAVID IGNATIUS: Maintaining the momentum of what we have taken to calling the Lebanese intifada, the Lebanese uprising. U.N. Resolution 1559 called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops. It happened. Lebanese elections happened on schedule and democratically.
The next issue, which is really going to be a hard one is the disarming of the Shiite militia Hezbollah which Israel regards as a primary threat. U.N. Resolution 1559 speaks about disarming Hezbollah. And, frankly you can’t have an armed militia that challenges the authority of the state and have a real state.
But I think everybody who looks at Lebanon knows that if you try to do this too quickly, too suddenly, the whole thing’s going to break. Again American diplomats, I’m told in the last several days, have been going around Beirut saying to people, “You know, we understand that you want to do this gently. If you make progress and get it done, we’ll support that.”
MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly from you, what do you think is the next — first big challenge?
ADIB FARHA: The first big challenge to the new parliament is going to be enacting a new electoral law, which they have all ran on a platform that promises that. The other big challenge is disarming the Lebanese and the Palestinian militias in Lebanon. And that is something that has to be handled with a great deal of tact.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Adib Farha, David Ignatius, thank you.
ADIB FARHA: Thank you.