'Obama's Cairo speech was not a factor in Lebanese elections'

Lebanon political expert attributes the unexpected outcome to internal politics among Lebanon's Maronite Christians.

lebanon elections (photo credit: )
lebanon elections
(photo credit: )
Despite the pro-Western majority win in the Lebanese elections whose final results were released Monday afternoon, not many changes are expected in the makeup of the new Lebanese parliament. The pro-Western March 14 Alliance comprised of the Sunni Future Movement, the Druse Progressive Socialist Party, and other smaller Christian parties, still controlled the majority in the parliament with 67-70 of the 128 seats. The pro-Iran March 8 Alliance which includes Hizbullah, Amal and the Maronite Free Patriotic Movement, remained with 57-60 seats, despite an expected rise. Predictions of an increase of pro-Iranian minority seats in Sunday's elections were largely based on Iran's growing influence over the past several years among Lebanese Shi'ites. However, Lebanon political expert Dr. Omri Nir, a non-faculty professor at Hebrew University and Ben-Gurion University, maintained that it was too early to declare this election as a real sign of strengthening Western influence in Lebanon. US President Barack Obama shouldn't take credit for the result of the Lebanese elections, said Nir. "I didn't see an impact of the speech [from Cairo] on the elections campaign," he added. Nir attributed the unexpected outcome to internal politics among Lebanon's Maronite Christians. Lebanese citizens usually cast their vote based on the people running and not according to party lines, he explained. Michel Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement in the March 8 alliance, received less than 40% of the Christian votes in Sunday's election which presented a big drop from his previous hold of 65% among Lebanese Christians. Aoun's decline in popularity came largely as a result of opposition from the current Maronite Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Maronite religious authorities, and his close ties with Hizbullah which are viewed negatively by Lebanon's Christians for bringing in foreign interference, namely Iran and Syria, in national affairs. During the recent elections campaign, Suleiman sent candidates to districts previously held by Aoun to draw Christian votes for March 14. The Hizbullah political party drew enough votes to elect 11 candidates for parliament seats, a drop from the 14 spots they held in the previous government. The March 14 Alliance must now decide how many cabinet seats to give the March 8 Alliance. Cardinal decisions in the Lebanese government, like the decision to go to war and foreign decisions, need a two thirds cabinet approval and March 8 may have veto power on these select decisions if given more than a third of the cabinet spots. Nir maintained that the United States and other foreign entities will pressure the winning side to grant veto power to March 8 in order to preserve political stability in Lebanon. Last month's Der Spiegel report on the UN investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005 linking a Hizbullah cell to the murder did not make a big splash in the media, according to Nir. Based on the timing before the election, voters viewed the report as an attempt by outside forces to draw votes away from Hizbullah and the issue was quickly forgotten, he claimed. The continued reign of March 14 and the incumbent Prime Minister Fouad Saniora will give the Obama administration a chance to strengthen its relationship with Lebanon as part of the new US-Middle East relations campaign highlighted in Obama's speech in Cairo last Thursday. "It's a good start for the Obama administration," said Nir about the opportunity afforded by the Lebanese elections.