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Lebanese Election Results Highlight Problems of Confessional System 


The fourth and final round of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections on June 20 secured a majority in the new parliament for members of the anti-Syrian opposition. But, meeting for its first session on Tuesday, Parliament re-elected its pro-Syrian speaker to serve for a fourth term, illustrating the complicated nature of Lebanese electoral politics.

Speaking with host Judith Latham on VOA News Now’s International Press Club, the managing editor of the Beirut Daily Star, Michael Glackin, explained that Lebanon is a complex society made up of 17 different sects including Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Maronite Christians, Christians from other denominations, and Druze. Mr. Glackin said seats in Parliament are split on a confessional basis, and 50 % must go to Christians. The President has to be a Maronite; the Prime Minister, a Sunni; the Speaker, a Shiite. Under this complicated system, according to Mr. Glackin, one’s primary political loyalty is to one’s own religious group rather than to the nation.

For example this week veteran parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, a Shiite closely identified with Damascus was selected as Speaker, only deepening the disillusionment of voters hoping for change, according to Michael Glackin. He said it is widely believed deals were cut to retain Mr. Berri’s position in exchange for his support in some areas for Christian and Druze leaders regarded as “anti-Syrian.” Mr. Glackin noted that, although the Lebanese government hopes for an economic aid package from the West, it is “hard to imagine” that U.S. dollars will be forthcoming unless Beirut agrees to disarm Hezbollah, which Washington views as a terrorist organization.

Nathan Guttman, Washington correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, agrees. Furthermore, Mr. Guttman said Israelis believe Syria retains considerable influence in Lebanon as evidenced by recent assassinations of prominent anti-Syrian politicians, and they also worry about the recent election of conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, whose government supports Hezbollah. From an Israeli perspective, Mr. Guttman said, Lebanon remains a country unwilling to advance the Middle East peace process.

But, according to Peter Speetjens, a Beirut-based correspondent with the Belgian daily newspaper, De Standaard, Lebanon’s countervailing political forces are “predictable.” That includes not only Nabih Berri’s re-election but also the influence of Sa’ad Hariri, son of the slain former Prime Minister, and of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and the perceived threat from Maronite Catholic leader General Michel Aoun – all of whom won significant blocs in the recent parliamentary elections. Mr. Speetjens says people try to over-simplify the political situation in Lebanon because they are uncomfortable with a confessional system complicated by an extraordinary degree of “deal-making.”

Many international journalists suggest that the recent elections in Lebanon have opened up old sectarian hostilities, perpetuating the threat of violence. Certainly, Sa’ad Hariri and his anti-Syrian alliance face a daunting task of forming a new government, reforming the political system, and developing a new relationship with Syria without inflaming those sectarian rivalries.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.