Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Hanging in the Balance

With the upcoming European elections drawing so much attention in the UK press it is a shame that the elections in Lebanon on 7th June have failed to attract much attention. Some argue that even in spite of this the election in a country only 4 million strong can only have a minute effect on the contentious region. This though seems unlikely as many look towards the results here as a barometer for the Middle East.

Most know nothing or very little about Lebanese politics per se but will have heard of the main opposition group; Hizbullah. In 2006, the Hizbullah field militia fought the Israelis in a quick but bruising battle. Now they are seeking to do battle again but this time with the shaky governing coalition consisting of Druze, Sunni Muslims and various Christians. Although the latest opinion polls show a slight lead for the opposition, the March 14th coalition has the advantage of American support and vice-president Joe Biden recently stopped by on a flying visit. He even hinted that a Hizbullah victory could put the vast amount of American aid currently going to Lebanon into jeopardy.

But America isn't the only heavy-weight power to wade in on this election. Both Iran and Syria help to finance Hizbullah and have strong connections with the country as their respective armies dominated Lebanon as a peacekeeping force until 1998. By Western standards, corruption is rife on all sides. In particular, Saudi Arabia is effectively financing an anti-Hizbullah campaign.

Lebanon is taking steps in the right direction with an attempted cap on campaign spending but this is easily exploited and as yet there is no uniform national ballot despite protests.

The general mainstream media, particularly in the US, is all too quick to point out that Hizbullah are the bad boys and they certainly don't endear themselves to the press after claiming "divine victory" in the six week war.Even their leader, Hasan Nasrallah, is a charismatic cleric who has found his way onto the Middle East's 'most wanted' list. There may well be a certain fear of the unknown involved as Hizbullah command enormous street power and their militia has superior training, equipment and morale which is the envy of the Arab world. Nevertheless they have also begun to play the political game nearly just as effectively by allying with an alliance of Christian factions and toning down their own religious zeal a tad.

Hizbullah must not be underestimated though and recent reports that link the group with the assassination of Rafik Hariri only serve to highlight this. In fact the Jerusalem Post is probbaly right to suggest that no matter what the result is on Sunday they will continue to play a major role in Lebanese politics. Rather these elections are turning out to be more important on a wider scale as East takes on West in something of a circus of politics before Iraninans go to the polls themselves on the 12th.