Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hizballah's election pledge a new politik in Lebanon?

With the constitutional deadline to submit election candidates fast approaching, the major political blocs have taken the gloves off and launched their campaigns.

Grande soirees and ceremonies have marked the beginning of a long campaign trail as election billboards and posters spruce up around the country.

What has surprised me about the conduct thus far is that political parties appear to be appropriately engaging in campaign warfare. Of course it is early days yet, but given the recent history and tension between rival political camps, many feared that the deadly inter-factional violence of May 2008 may rear its ugly head come election time this year. Reconciliation and a thaw in relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia/US appears to have hosed down fears of internal strife in Lebanon this year.

As a consequence of the regional detente, the onus of the elections has been placed on ... the Lebanese people. For once, results and positions won't be decided in a foreign capital, but indeed, by the Lebanese themselves. Given the multi-confessionalism of each of the blocs (March 14 contains Sunni, Druze and Christian parties, whilst the Opposition includes Shi'ites, Christians, Druze), major political parties are having to put forward national agendas and policies for the first time.

This is indeed an incredible development that appears to have been overlooked. Whilst the past four turbulent years have been marred by heightened sectarian competition on the surface, an undercurrent of entangled co-operation among the sects and the realisation that no sect can act alone has produced an intertwined political web.

The fact that groups like Hizballah are releasing, for the first time, a national agenda - to remove confessionalism from the political system, introduce proportional voting, combat corruption and lower the voting age to 18 - is evidence that the political dynamics in the country have indeed changed. Hizballah, renowned as a fundamentalist Shia organisation, has spent much of its three-decade existence sticking to its Shia corner, avoiding at all times the central and corrupt Lebanese political process. This led to rivals accusing Hizballah of creating a state-within-a-state. But given recent developments, the Shia party has made a major u-turn and has acknowledged that investing in a central authority (the Lebanese political establishment) is necessary to protect the interests of the Shias. That is, the interests of the Shias are intertwined with the interests of all sects and groups in Lebanon.

Sectarian groups have realised that in order to protect the interests of their community, they must indeed take into consideration the interests of other communities, therefore investing in the state's institutions (such as its political process) is essential. Thus, all parties are campaigning heavily in these elections.

Today, Hizballah is not only fighting for votes in its Shia neighbourhoods, as it has previously done, but fighting battles in the north for Sunni votes, in Mount Lebanon for Christian votes, and in Aley for the Druze votes courtesy of its allies. Therefore, it needs to produce an election platform that not only appeals to the Shi'ites (the resistance card, for example, is no longer the only tool needed), but appeals to all Lebanese. The best way to attract non-Shia voters to a Shia-led political bloc is to drum the ideas of secularism and anti-corruption. Hizballah has been forced to acknowledge the interests of all Lebanese, and have thus attempted to create a national election platform that seeks to unite and benefit all Lebanese. A sectarian party promoting a secular strategy ... the times are a changing.

Lebanese politics now operates in blocs of combined sectarian groups, forcing each party to absorb the other's concerns and formulate a common strategy that inherently is designed for a national audience that surpasses all sectarian boundaries.

Ironically, the turbulence of previous years may have in fact created this new era of combined sectarian interests and co-operation, paving the way for a more united, stable Lebanon down the track. Never before have rival sects in the country been so intertwined, and this is reflected in Hizballah's national agenda. The days where each sect had to fend for their own are gone. What is emerging is an implicit realisation nationwide that all sects share similar interests, and that they must work together within a national framework to ensure their rights are assured.

This blog post was prompted by a news article in The Daily Star.

No comments: