BEIRUT // A strong showing by the pro-western coalition known as March 14 over its Hizbollah-led rivals on Sunday has set the stage for a new political negotiation to form a cabinet that can actually govern a deeply divided Lebanon. But with positions already being staked out by both sides, there is little optimism on the streets of Beirut that violence can be avoided.
On Sunday, March 14 candidates secured about 68 seats in the 128-member parliament, while the Shiite parties led by Hizbollah and their Christian allies won 57. Three independents also won. The majority coalition of Sunni, Druze and some Christian parties were expected to face a much tougher challenge from the opposition led by Hizbollah and its Shiite and Christian allies, but an influx of expatriate voters appeared to have skewed polling and predictions.
Although the March 14 victory should reward Lebanon with continued US aid for the military, decent relations with European Union donors and even reduce tensions with Israel, it poses a set of problems that bear a strong resemblance to the internal struggles that paralysed Lebanon after the 2006 war, when Hizbollah and its allies withdrew from the government and demanded a unity government based on a veto-power for the minority.
"Lebanon has entered a new phase today," said Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre. "The question is, once the government is formed what kind of challenge will it face?" Saad Hariri, the leader of the Sunni bloc and the most likely choice for prime minister, has already announced he will not offer the opposition enough seats in the new cabinet to veto government decisions, a key demand by Hizbollah and its allies.
An ally of Mr Hariri immediately called for a unity government, but brushed off the opposition's key demand of reserving a third of the cabinet seats, even as he warned his supporters not to provoke violence from disappointed opposition members. "We voted and we still have faith in the project of the state and aspire for its success. But we must not isolate the others. Beware of the deadly mistake of isolation," warned Walid Joumblatt, the Druze leader.
"The last time we made a mistake by accepting veto power for the president. The president cannot fulfill his role if he does not have the power to sack a minister by a unilateral decision." But preventing unilateral decisions by the government is exactly what Hizbollah wants to protect its special status as an armed resistance group free of government command. Already there are deep concerns on Beirut's streets that the result could lead to sectarian bloodshed similar to the invasion of Sunni areas in May 2008 by Hizbollah-aligned gunmen intent on breaking a political deadlock by force.
A Hizbollah member of parliament established the preliminary demand that the new government accept Hizbollah as an armed entity and Israel as an enemy of Lebanon. "The majority must commit not to question our role as a resistance party, the legitimacy of our weapons arsenal and the fact that Israel is an enemy state," Mohammed Raad told Agence France-Presse. He warned that the outcome of Sunday's vote signalled further political turbulence. "The results indicate that the crisis will continue, unless the majority changes its attitude."
More explicitly, some Hizbollah supporters and allies said they were preparing for bloodshed over the election results. "We will witness trouble on the streets," vowed a Shiite militant aligned with Hizbollah. "I will tell you, another May 7th will be coming very soon," he continued. "We lost the elections. As a loser, how can you go and negotiate with the winners? We have to go to the streets to prove ourselves again, so they cannot rule without us."
Unfortunately for Lebanon, these tactics worked quite well in May 2008, which saw the clashes resolved only by a pan-Arab initiative to end the deadlock. But there were strong indications that the attack on Beirut in May, which stemmed from a government attempt to disconnect Hizbollah's private fibre-optic communications network, might have cost Hizbollah's Christian allies dearly. Key Christian districts that were expected to be competitive for Michel Aoun's candidates turned overwhelmingly for March 14, in part, according to voters, out of anger over Hizbollah's assault on Beirut last May.
Opposition figures in the Christian community also criticised the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's description of those events in a speech just weeks before the election as a "glorious day for the resistance" as unhelpful for their campaign efforts. These figures also accused March 14 of conducting a sectarian campaign that exploited Christian fears of a Hizbollah takeover. One March 14 supporter voiced the common perception that Mr Aoun had betrayed his own people by his alliance with Hizbollah.
"I never thought the Iranian monkey Aoun would win in these elections," said Dani, 27, a Christian from East Beirut. One supporter of Mr Aoun thought that the March 8 coalition was less beholden to outside forces. "I voted [for Mr Aoun] yesterday, but we lost because we refused to take money from Iran and we did not buy people's votes," said Tony Eid, 42, a lawyer from Beirut. "We were telling the Christians in Lebanon that it's about time for us to be strong and not depend on foreign support, but they preferred to be bought with American and Saudi money."
Mr Eid's complaints about foreign interference repeated a key issue for both sides in the election, with March 14 receiving blatant financial support from Saudi Arabia, and with Iran funding its longtime ally, Hizbollah. Any struggle over the make-up of a unity government, should Mr Hariri's bloc offer such a compromise, will have to include the support of the United States and Saudi Arabia on one side and Syria and Iran on the other.