The high stakes in Lebanon's upcoming June 7 parliamentary elections -- which will see the Western-backed March 14 coalition and the Hezbollah-backed March 8 alliance go head to head -- is highlighted by a number of recent foreign visits, such as Vice President Joe Biden's surprise stop and meet with President Michel Suleiman there last week. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's Monday visit a few days later.
Biden's visit came on the heels of a stopover by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, spurring accusations from Hezbollah that the US is inappropriately "meddling in Lebanese affairs," according to the Wall Street Journal. And though Biden claimed neutrality for the Obama administration, it is generally assumed that Western nations favor a strong showing by the March 14 Alliance -- a coalition of anti-Syrian, anti-Iranian parties led by assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's son, Saad Hariri.
However, unfortunately for March 14 supporters, Hezbollah's current, more-moderate electoral position bodes well for it to win a "slim edge" over its rivals, according to Reuters' Alistair Lyon. Lyon writes:
Yet the Shi'ite Hezbollah and Amal factions, which, along with Christian leader Michel Aoun, form the core of the "March 8" alliance, would likely ask their opponents to join another unwieldy national unity government, limiting the chances of any radical shift in Lebanon's political or economic orientation.
Though Hezbollah is the only Lebanese political faction to still carry arms, it is not expected to sully the election process with force or violence, according to Lyon's sources. Nevertheless, a parliamentary victory for the March 8 movement would have significant ramifications within Lebanon. According to a Middle East Times analysis:
So what would a March 8th victory mean? For the Lebanese it would mean that, although it is not expected that Damascus would dispatch troops into Lebanon once more, nevertheless, it would certainly mean that Damascus' influence over Lebanese politics would increase. One of the first casualties of a victory by the pro-Syrians would undoubtedly mean the demise of the special tribunal meant to judge the suspects implicated in the murder of former Prime Minster Rafik Hariri.
Lebanon has long served as a proxy battleground for bigger regional players, who have for decades pumped in cash, guns and fighters. In the current election, both sides have accused the other of using funding from overseas to finance campaigns.
Moreover, discounting foreign influences, Lebanon's patchwork domestic political climate is hardly a testament to stability and smooth transitions. Though participating factions agreed at Doha last year to cooperate, the Financial Times reports that adherence to this commitment was short-lived:
But it takes only a drive along Beirut's streets and its surroundings to discover just how little reconciliation has taken place over the past year. The lingering tensions, the fear of opponents and the dramatically different visions of Lebanon held by the two main camps - the March 14 alliance of parties that holds the parliamentary majority and their rivals, the March 8 opposition - are on dramatic display at street corners.
Seemingly conflicting reports emerged regarding promised US military aid following Biden's visit, with some saying aid is contingent on the electoral outcome and others saying the aid will be unconditional. Consider the following from YNet News:
Murr said that the American vice president pledged to have the said weapons delivered to Lebanon, and that the aid package would be given to the country unconditionally, although Biden on Friday said that the aid hinges on the outcome of the upcoming general elections.
For her part, like Biden, Clinton and the State Department have endeavored to present the US as a neutral player who wants only that Lebanon's elections be free and fair. From the April 27, 2009 State Department press briefing with Robert Wood:
QUESTION: On Lebanon, just looking ahead to elections after the Secretary's trip, are you making any contingency plans in case Hezbollah wins a majority? For example, reviewing military aid to the government and --
MR. WOOD: I think the Secretary spoke to this very clearly when she was in Beirut. I mean, we obviously want to see free elections. We're going to support the Lebanese Government. We certainly want to see, you know, a government that has moderate views in place. We've made that very clear. What's important here is that there not be interference in Lebanese internal affairs. We want to make sure that everyone supports a free election in Lebanon and, as an overall goal, a free, democratic, prosperous Lebanon. And that's going to be our policy going forward.
You know, we'll just have to see what happens after the election. But as I said, I think the Secretary was very clear in terms of where we stand with regard to Lebanon and the upcoming election.