Stark choices in Lebanon election
Christians seen as key to vote for Parliament
BEIRUT - When voters go to the polls here today, they will be surrounded by campaign signs and banners declaring this to be an election of almost apocalyptic significance.
On the surface, the choice does seem stark: In one corner of Lebanon's most competitive parliamentary race in decades stands the Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah and its allies; in the other corner, a pro-US political alliance led by a man often described as a playboy.
"It's your choice between peace and war," said Sami Gemayel, a Christian candidate who opposes Hezbollah, during a recent TV appearance. "The choice is between Gaza and a developed, civilized Lebanese state."
But the political realities of this small, chronically divided Mediterranean country are far less drastic, and far more complex. Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist group, is already part of the Parliament and Cabinet. It is almost certain to win the same number of Parliament seats - 11 out of 128 - as it now holds. If Hezbollah and its allies win a majority for the first time - the race is likely to be close - there will be concern in Washington and Tel Aviv. But the Lebanese government will not fall into the hands of armed Islamists.
Instead, the election turns on the votes of Lebanon's Christians, who are divided between the two main political camps. The real beneficiary of an opposition victory would not be Hezbollah but its main electoral partner, the Free Patriotic Movement, led by the retired Christian general Michel Aoun. His parliamentary bloc is already more than twice as large as Hezbollah's, and a clear electoral victory could move him into a dominant position.
To his critics, Aoun is a political opportunist and traitor whose alliance with Hezbollah, reached in 2006, threatens to draw Lebanon into the sphere of Syria and Iran, and to bring more ruinous wars with Israel. Historically, Lebanon's Christians have identified more with the West.
To his supporters, Aoun is a reformer who has the will to change Lebanon's entrenched culture of corruption, patronage, and sectarian division. They say allying with Hezbollah is the only way to ultimately disarm it, and to move past the bitter history of Christian-Muslim tensions that has nurtured conflict here. A policy of confrontation, such as the one the United States seemed to be advocating, is a recipe for renewed civil war, the Aounists say.
"We are born in American hospitals, we wear American clothes, we go to American schools, but don't ask us to commit suicide," said Ziyad Abs, 38, a member of the Aounist movement's political bureau.
In a sense, it is a debate over the wisdom of pressuring Hezbollah openly or trying to tame it through political inclusion. As always with Lebanon, the debate has been profoundly influenced by the changing political winds.
Lebanon's last elections, in 2005, took place in the aftermath of the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. That killing - widely believed to have been carried out by Syria - shocked the world and led to Syria's withdrawal after three decades of military presence here. An anti-Syrian coalition led by Hariri's son and political heir, Saad Hariri, swept to power, and with the backing of the United States, hoped to push Hezbollah to give up its formidable arsenal.
But that ambition has crumbled under the weight of regional political realities. A 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah enhanced the Shiite group's domestic political standing, and made disarming it more difficult.
A political showdown between the opposition and the governing majority provoked an 18-month political crisis that ended only when Hezbollah briefly took control of west Beirut in May 2008. A political settlement reached shortly afterward granted the opposition the veto powers it had been seeking.
Now, with the Obama administration reaching out to Syria and Iran, it seems clear that the pro-US majority in Lebanon cannot expect Western military support in its goal of disarming Hezbollah. That recognition has energized the Aounist movement, whose leaders say their close relationship with Hezbollah is the best foundation for a move toward greater civil peace.