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Lebanon’s Elections. Foreign powers should recognise the Legitimacy of Results

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Beirut/Brussels - The challenge of Lebanon’s 7 June elections will be to bring winners and losers together to avoid triggering another cycle of violent confrontation. 

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Lebanon’s Elections: Avoiding a New Cycle of Confrontation, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, warns that Lebanon’s poll risks offering a false hope. Underlying conflicts will be revived, not resolved. Regardless of who ultimately prevails – the Hizbollah-dominated alliance or the pro-Western coalition – forming a viable government and agreeing on a common program will in the best case be time-consuming and require difficult compromise on all sides.

“That the parties agreed to shift their conflict from the streets to the ballot box is surely a good thing, but it should not be misinterpreted”, says Peter Harling, Crisis Group’s Lebanon Project Director. “The results almost certainly will be close and so replicate the schism that divides the political arena into two irreconcilable camps”.

As election day nears, battle lines are becoming starker. Campaigning is essentially negative, based on aggressive denunciation of one’s opponent at the expense of clear exposition of one’s political program. Sectarian and communitarian arguments, held in check for a time, are openly displayed, awakening painful civil war memories. Increasingly radical positions on both sides portend, in the best of circumstances, arduous negotiations to reach a compromise.

External actors are contributing to polarisation by taking sides, more and more openly, for their respective allies. International consensus on the need for peaceful, legitimate elections could well come to a halt as soon as balloting concludes; at that point, the game of backing one side and ostracising the other looks likely to resume. Under this scenario, which today appears the more probable, the confrontation will not end. It will be pursued by different means.

A one-sided government is an unrealistic and inadvisable prospect. Hizbollah and its allies have amply demonstrated their ability to obstruct political life and block institutional decisions if they are excluded. Likewise, Hizbollah will do all in its power to avoid a repeat of Hamas’s experience, when triumph at the polls was followed by incapacity to govern due to the international diplomatic and economic boycott. Besides, President Michel Suleiman has nothing to gain from a mono-colour cabinet that would erode his mediating role – the single most important source of his fragile authority.

Regardless of post-electoral manoeuvring, the best one can expect is avoiding a new violent confrontation, even as political paralysis a nd underlying conflicts persist.

“Central in this regard will be the attitude of foreign powers, whose local allies are quick to admit that Lebanon’s domestic conflict only can be resolved if they reach a deal”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East Director. “At a minimum then, the coalitions’ respective external supporters ought to avoid past mistakes, recognise the legitimacy of electoral results and press their allies toward peaceful compromise”.

June 4, 2009

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