With little more than a month to go before the Lebanese elections, the opposition has yet to announce its list of candidates for the southern district of Jezzine. The buzz is that Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri are involved in a tug of war over the district’s three seats, with each calling the issue a “red line” and refusing to back down. As a result, Jezzine may be heading for an unprecedented phenomenon in Lebanese politics: a triangular race involving two March 8 lists and one for March 14, as al-Hayat recently reported. On the surface, the controversy is over seats, but another element seems to be at work, as two of March 8’s most powerful leaders vie for supremacy and attempt to secure a larger parliamentary bloc for themselves. Given the statements that have been ricocheting back and forth between the two men’s camps, there may be even more to the spat than simple dominance.
The dispute over Jezzine revolves around Aoun’s insistence that he be allotted the district’s three Christian seats (two of which are reserved for Maronites, the other for a Greek Catholic) which at present are held by allies of Berri. Jezzine, like other districts in the South, tilts heavily toward March 8, and no competition is expected for most seats in the region.
Given the safety of southern seats for March 8, Aoun’s motivation is straightforward: He wants to pick up three easy seats beyond the mountain and thus bolster his claim to be the principle Christian leader throughout Lebanon.
According to Al-Mustaqbal’s Nassir al-Assaad, “Aoun is seeking to expand his representation in the Shia areas and aiming ultimately to limit Christian representation to only him.”
Berri, on the other hand, does not want to diminish his power, and by acquiescing to Aoun’s demands he would not only be reducing his own representation in the South, but would also be restricting his power to his authority as parliament speaker. During the era of Syrian hegemony, most, if not all of South Lebanon’s seats in parliament were allocated to Berri.
With the emergence of Hezbollah, Berri was forced to give up a number of spots to the Islamist party, and with them his electoral primacy in the region. Now Aoun’s demands risk further diminishing Berri’s power in the South.
“Berri aims at being elected parliament speaker again, and therefore it is important to him that he be represented by all sects, Shia and Christian alike, and by especially those of the Christian villages in the South like Jezzine,” said Rosana Bou Monsef, a columnist for An-Nahar.
Jezzine has been a sensitive issue for Aoun and Berri since long before their current dispute.
On a visit to the district a year ago, Aoun delivered a speech in which he declared that he had “reclaimed” Jezzine, a comment that did not please the man who, for more than two decades during the civil war and afterward as speaker, had held sway over the district.
“Berri objected to the use of the word ‘reclaim’, which depicted the district as if it was being held hostage by him,” Bou Monsef told NOW.
Aoun made similar comments in a later visit to East Beirut, announcing he would “free” Achrafieh as well, which is to say Aoun positioned himself, rhetorically at least, at equal distance between March 14 and Berri, one of the principle leaders of March 8.
While it is difficult to assess its significance, a couple of months before Aoun’s visit to Jezzine, during the struggle over who would be Lebanon’s next president, Berri notably refrained from supporting Aoun’s candidacy for the highest office in the land. From that point on, the two leaders seem to have been on a collision course.
Even so, underpinning the current tug of war are deeper tensions between the two men.
Reports in the media have suggested that Aoun has been criticized by members of his own party, who, noting that the FPM’s political platform attacks corruption in all forms, argue that it is incompatible for Aoun to align with a figure as notorious for under-the-table deals and kickbacks as the speaker.
“FPM members criticized Aoun’s stance with Berri on the Council for the South issue and questioned his rhetoric against corruption when he differentiates between [Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora and Berri, both of whom they consider to be marked by corruption, and for that, Aoun is trying to realign himself away from Berri as much as possible,” explained Assaad. “It has reached as far as Aoun calling Berri an ally of an ally and not an ally of himself.”
According to Ashiraa magazine, Aoun defined his position when, while discussing the issue of judicial appointments, he accused Berri of conspiring with the ruling majority over the issue.
In an interview earlier this month with Kalam an-Nass, the LBC talk show, Aoun went fever further, saying that “Berri might not be a nominee for parliament speaker.”
Making things even more complicated is talk of an ongoing rapprochement between Berri and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, which apparently began to take shape during last year’s May events. This “political harmony” between Jumblatt and Berri appears to be troubling Aoun, according to Mohamad Shukeir of Al-Hayat in London.
Berri and Aoun clearly have different opinions on how to deal with political rivals, Shukeir has reported, with Aoun insisting that the next government be formed only by the majority, and Berri calling for national unity, as “there are no political substitutes for both Jumblatt and Hariri.”
Overseeing – and to some degree refereeing – the tug of war between Berri and Aoun is Hezbollah, which has been playing a mediating role so far, and has shown willingness to forgo longstanding alliances in districts like Hermel, Baabda and Beirut II in the hopes of facilitating a final agreement between the party of God’s two main allies.
“It’s to Hezbollah’s benefit that the two parties reach a consensus agreement,” Assaad said. “At the end of the day, Hezbollah’s aim is to get the majority of the Christian votes, a battle that Aoun is needed for, and any concession made to Berri in return will only serve the overall aim.”
Berri, for his part, refuses to abandon his close ally, Samir Azar, a candidate in Jezzine, and insists that Aoun share the seats. Still, Aoun has shown no signs of budging from the idea of a full list. NOW Lebanon has reported that Hezbollah has made a serious effort to convince Aoun to share, but has thus far failed. Now, according to al-Hayat, the party fears Jezzine might devolve into an electoral battle between two March 8 lists and a third from March 14.
But how far can this rift really go? Whatever the conflicts between the two men, they are both solidly lodged in the Syrian/Iranian axis, and there is as of yet no indication that either is thinking of leaving.
“Both Aoun and Berri will go as far as they can to pressure each other and get most of their demands, and so these statements are only being used as a source of pressure and not an effort to break alliance,” Bou Monsef said.
At the end of the day, said Bou Monsef, “if Hezbollah finds that it needs to satisfy Aoun, then it will do its best to, and if it reaches a point where pressuring Berri may be the only means, then Berri will have no choice but to accept, for there is no other[party but] Hezbollah that will name him parliamentary speaker.”