A man gestures as he drives a car with the picture of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on it, on election day in Bint Jbeil in southern Lebanon on Sunday. Photo: Reuters/Aziz Taher
A man gestures as he drives a car with the picture of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on it, on election day in Bint Jbeil in southern Lebanon on Sunday. Photo: Reuters/Aziz Taher

The pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian team in Lebanon, known as the March 8 Alliance, has just grabbed control of the Lebanese Parliament, winning 67 out of 128-seats.

In landmark elections held on Sunday, the first time in almost a decade, all of Hezbollah’s main allies made it into the chamber of deputies, dealing a heavy blow to the Saudi-backed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.

The 48-year old two-time premier campaigned on protecting Beirut from Iranian influence, with his Interior Minister Nihad Mashnouk telling voters that by voting for Hariri and his team, they would be choosing “Arabism over Persianism.”

In order to win in the Lebanese capital, however, Hariri needed a 50% voter turnout in Beirut, which clearly did not happen on Sunday.

Poor turnout

That would have meant roughly 105,000 Sunni Muslim voting in his favor, but many stayed home, unimpressed with the list of candidates or with Hariri himself, who spent two entire years living in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia, letting his constituency wrestle with its own worries, like crippling inflation, garbage overflows, and security breaches caused by “spillovers” from the Syrian conflict.

As a result, Hariri’s team only got five out of 11 seats in Beirut, with four going to Hezbollah allies, one to the Social Progressive Party of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and one to a notable newcomer, independent Beiruti millionaire Fouad Makhzoumi. The latter is a good friend of the Saudis, and so is former prime minister Najib Mikati, who swept all seats in Tripoli in northern Lebanon, signaling that Saudi Arabia’s long-time favoritism for Hariri has waned. Although he remains a Saudi ally in Lebanon, he is no longer the only Saudi ally in that country.

Lebanese prime minister and candidate for the parliamentary election Saad al-Hariri gestures after he casts his vote in Beirut, Lebanon, May 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi
Lebanese PM Saad al-Hariri gestures after voting in Beirut on Sunday. He is tipped to retain the post despite losing control of parliament. Photo: Reuters/Jamal Saidi

Hardliners in Saudi Arabia were upset with Hariri’s willingness to work with Hezbollah in order to make it to the premiership two years ago, giving two portfolios to members of the party. They forced him to resign during a visit to Saudi Arabia last November, amid speculation that he was kidnapped and forced to step down against his will. But shortly after returning to Beirut, he withdrew his resignation and mended broken fences with Hezbollah.

What Hariri did achieve was a tiny breakthrough in the Baalbak-Hermel district in the northern Bekka, a traditional Hezbollah stronghold, where he managed to wrestle the Muslim seat from Hezbollah’s control, along with the Christian seat, which went to his ally Samir Gagegea of the Lebanese Forces (LF), an all-Maronite party affiliated with Hariri’s Future Movement. The remaining eight seats in Baalbak-Hermel went to Hezbollah, thanks to 230,000 Shiite voters who came out to vote for their candidates on election day.

Warning on Saudi money buying voters

Hezbollah had put its full weight behind the Baalbak-Hermel elections, which were handled personally by Hasan Nasrallah, who warned of direct Saudi money trying to buy off voters on Sunday, especially after Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Walid al-Boukhari, visited the district in late March. That backfired in favor of Hezbollah and as a result, voter turnout there was very high – reaching 52%. In Hariri’s native Sidon, for example, it stood at a measly 32% whereas, in Tripoli, it was only 28%.

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the Lebanese Forces emerged victorious on Sunday, raising their parliamentary share from 8 to 15 seats across 13 districts. They campaigned on firebrand Lebanese Christian nationalism, saying that they were opposed to the arms of Hezbollah, noting that arms ought to be only in the hands of the state, and were highly critical of Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict, saying it had attracted ISIS and other jihadi groups into the country.

Their leader Samir Gagegea had spent 11 years in jail during the years of Syrian tutelage in Lebanon, only to be released back in 2005, after the murder of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. A doctor turned warlord and then politician, Gagegea is now establishing himself as leader of an impressive parliamentary bloc that will undoubtedly challenge Hezbollah within the Chamber – regardless of who controls the absolute majority.

His victory is also a setback for President Michel Aoun, the other Christian leader who also opposed the Syrian Army in Lebanon and spent long years in exile before returning home, also in 2005, after the forced Syrian withdrawal.

Aoun has since repaired his relations with Syria and created a tactical alliance with Hezbollah, seeing that due to their arms, influence and numerical supremacy, they were the only ones capable of making him president – an ambition he has harbored since the 1980s. He promised to protect and embrace their arsenal, and they promised to make him president, which they did in late 2016. Aoun’s rise to power satisfied his personal ambitions but cost him plenty of votes among Lebanese Christians, who turned to Gagegea and secured his latest victory on Sunday, at the expense of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

Shock for Israel

The election results are a shock to all stakeholders, especially to Israel. Hours after the results were announced, Education Minister Naftali Bennet said: “Lebanon = Hezbollah” noting that Tel Aviv will not differentiate between the sovereign state of Lebanon and the party that now controls its Legislative Branch.

The Syrians and Iranians are beaming, no doubt, but they probably still have to deal with Hariri, who will likely remain prime minister, because under the constitution the PM doesn’t need to control a large bloc in parliament in order to hold the top office.

For lack of a better Sunni alternative, President Aoun will probably call on him to create the new cabinet, but he will be much weaker than he was before, deprived of the lion’s share of seats in Parliament.

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