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According to a recent Sofres poll, Lebanese Christians have become steadily more critical of opposition leader Michel Aoun since the escalation of Lebanon’s political crisis in January.  Nevertheless, Aoun remains the most popular choice for president.  Explaining this situation goes a long way to revealing Aoun’s political strengths and weaknesses.

The poll, conducted in May by Sofres Liban, included 2,000 Lebanese Christians from across the country. Sofres Liban is the Lebanese branch of Taylor Nelson Sofres PLC, the #2 ranked global market research and information group based in London.  It is worth noting, however, that the survey was done before the outbreak of conflict in Nahr al-Bared – events which likely impacted opinion on many of the issues covered.

According to the poll’s findings, the ongoing political deadlock has caused Aoun’s reputation to erode significantly among Christians.  In a January Sofres poll, 50% of Christians stated that they had a favorable impression of Aoun, while 40% had a negative impression.  By May, only 41% of Christians answered that they had a favorable opinion, and 52% had a negative opinion. 

In contrast, March 14 leader Samir Geagea saw his favorability rating improve from 43% positive and 45% negative in January, to 54% positive and 40% negative in May.

The decline in Aoun’s reputation has been mirrored by a Christian shift toward March 14 in general.  Christian support for March 14 grew from 35% in January to 42% in May, while support for March 8 shrunk slightly during the same time period, from 34% to 31%.  27% of Christians, however, still respond that they support neither March 8 nor March 14, a figure that has been relatively stable throughout the duration of the conflict.

The engine for this growing discontent seems to be Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah.  Many Christians are, and always have been, wary of the armed Shia group.  When asked which party represented the greatest threat to them, 25% of Christians, a plurality, named Hezbollah.  55% of Christians favored the unconditional disarmament of Hezbollah in May – an increase from 47% two months prior. Disapproval of Aoun’s Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah has also increased recently, from 41% in March to 52% in May.

But despite the growing disagreement with General Aoun’s political alliances, a plurality of Lebanese Christians still favor Aoun in the upcoming presidential elections this September.  According to the Sofres poll, Aoun was the choice of 34% of Christians for president.  The next closest contender was Samir Geagea with 21%, followed by Amin Gemayel at 10%.  15% of Christians polled said that they supported none of the potential candidates for president.

So why does Aoun still come out ahead if his positions are losing support among the Christians? 

Obviously, a major reason is that Aoun is the only opposition member who is a viable presidential candidate, while support for March 14 presidential candidates is divided between Geagea, Gemayel, Boutros Harb and Nassib Lahoud (who each hold on to 4% of Christian support) and others. The combined support of the top four March 14 candidates is 39% – exceeding the level of support for Aoun’s candidacy.  As the presidential election nears, the March 14 coalition will likely settle on one candidate and thereby consolidate pro-government Christian support.
 
However, the advantage Aoun enjoys as the opposition’s central Christian figure should not be understated.  His unique position as the only March 8 figure with real presidential stature has allowed him to gather Christians sympathetic to the opposition in a way that no candidate has been able among March 14 Christians.

Aoun also benefits from the fact that he is not defined solely by his current political stands. From the late 1980s until quite recently, Aoun established himself as one of Lebanon’s most uncompromising anti-Syrian leaders.  From his attempt to drive the Syrians out of Lebanon in 1989 to his lobbying in favor of the American Syria Accountability Act in 2003, Aoun spent years building up a great deal of trust amongst Lebanon’s Christian community. While his current alliance with Hezbollah has greatly damaged this reputation, there are still some Lebanese Christians who hold out hope for the return of the “old Aoun.”

This is borne out when Lebanese Christians are asked what faction the next president should come from.  In the Sofres poll, 29% of Christians favor a president from the March 14 camp, and 22% favor a president from March 8 – numbers relatively consistent with the overall balance of power between the rival factions in the Christian community.  However, a substantial 11% of Christians announced that they favored an outcome where the March 14 coalition allied itself with General Aoun and supported him for the presidency.

Aoun’s advisors should be telling him that his presidential chances remain good – but that his alliance with Hezbollah is causing him to slowly bleed Christian support.  He is currently benefiting from divided Christian strength among the March 14 forces and the strong support base he built up before 2005.  However, these are two rapidly-dissolving advantages: the March 14 coalition will likely soon unite around a presidential candidate, and the longer Aoun remains tied to groups like Hezbollah, the faster many Christians are going to forget about his past accomplishments.