Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt announced at a press conference Friday that his party would “stand with Syria and the Resistance” in naming Lebanon’s next prime minister. Hezbollah has indicated it will not support the re-election of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
On Thursday, Hariri said he will once again stand for the post, and his March 14 coalition has thrown their support behind him. President Michel Sleiman is scheduled to hold constitutionally-mandated consultations with parliament on choosing a new PM Monday, though those consultations have already been postponed once.
Jumblatt’s decision could derail Hariri’s chances of winning re-election as PM. The constitution does not specifically call for a formal vote, but traditionally the president receives a name from MPs, and the candidate with the most votes wins.
Speculation about whom Jumblatt – and the 10 parliamentarians in his Democratic Gathering bloc – will support as Lebanon’s new PM has been rampant since the government collapsed on January 12. Just last week, Jumblatt and sources close to him were hinting he would support Hariri.
This week, however, Lebanon’s press has been abuzz with rumors the Druze leader will support former PM Omar Karami, reportedly the March 8 coalition’s choice. The conventional wisdom surfacing from press reports also indicated Jumblatt decided not to support Hariri under pressure from Damascus and Hezbollah.
In an interview with The New York Times published on Thursday, Jumblatt, speaking of the coming vote on a new PM, said, “I’ve been able to slowly regain the confidence of Hezbollah and Bashar [al-Assad]… I’m not going to commit any more blunders. I cannot afford to.”
“It’s clear they’ve been twisting his arm,” a source close to Jumblatt told NOW Lebanon of pressure exerted by Syria and Hezbollah on the PSP leader. “There have been rumors of military action [by Syria and Hezbollah], threats against the Druze. The main problem is Hezbollah doesn’t have an enemy to fight [in the Sunni and Christian communities.] If the Druze are in the equation [against them], they do have an enemy. The Druze are the only ones willing to stand up. If Hezbollah wants to take West Beirut, No one will stand against them.”
Hilal Khashan, a Political Science professor at the American University of Beirut, agreed that Jumblatt was pressured against supporting Hariri’s nomination.
“The Syrians told him to vote for Karami,” Khashan said. Jumblatt last visited Damascus on January 15, days after 11 ministers resigned from the cabinet, forcing the collapse of the government.
The source close to Jumblatt, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to talk to the media, added that Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it was abandoning mediation efforts in Lebanon gave Jumblatt the green light to side with March 8.
Saudi Arabia, the source said, provides the PSP with a “big chunk” of the money in the party’s coffers. “It’s not a secret. Everyone knows this. [Jumblatt] says it publically.” But, the source added, “The Saudis gave up and threw in the towel. [Jumblatt] would never go against Saudi wishes, which is why he opened up to Syria in the first place,” following the June 2009 parliamentary elections.
Khashan, however, disagreed with this assessment of Jumblatt’s ties to the Saudis.
“The Saudis are not in a position to apply pressure on Jumblatt. There are two sides: the Americans and the Syrians. Jumblatt does not trust the Americans. They will let him down,” he said.
Jumblatt’s decision could mean a win for March 8 in choosing the next PM, but that is not yet guaranteed. In the New York Times interview, he said he can only count on four or five of the 11 MPs in his bloc to vote against Hariri.
During his press conference, Jumblatt did not say his entire bloc – which includes official PSP members as well as non-members and is comprised of five Druze, five Christians and one Sunni – will vote with March 8. Two sources close to the PSP gave NOW Lebanon conflicting analysis on what might happen during consultations.
One source said seven MPs will vote with Jumblatt while another said only four will. Neither was sure if the remaining Democratic Gathering bloc MPs would vote for Hariri or abstain from a vote.
An article in As-Safir recently noted that Tripoli MPs Mohammad Safadi, Ahmad Karami and Najib Mikati, Donniyeh MP Qassem Abdel Aziz, and Zahle MP Nicolas Fattouch are technically independent, though they ran on March 14-supported electoral lists, and may choose to vote against Hariri.
Khashan rejected out of hand that the Sunni MPs from the north would vote against Hariri, but Fattouch is expected to vote with March 8, according to press reports. Voting next week, should it take place, could be close, but Jumblatt’s decision seems to preclude Hariri’s chances of winning re-election.
That, of course, does not mean a government will be formed any time soon.
“March 14 won’t join the cabinet of Omar Karami,” Khashan said, echoing unnamed sources from the coalition quoted in the press this week. “They will boycott. This is an unfolding crisis, and worse is yet to come.”