Mona Alami

The Daily Star, Lebanon
May 1 2008

Murr's rift with Aoun could usher in power shift in upcoming
parliamentary elections

BEIRUT: The ongoing political crisis gripping Lebanon has chipped away
at what has been viewed by most since the 2005 parliamentary elections
as an unlikely alignment of two political heavyweights. The recent
falling out between Michel Aoun, head of the Christian Free Patriotic
Movement (FPM) and Michel Murr, the Greek Orthodox former vice Prime
Minister, heralds a change that will undoubtedly affect the 2009
electoral landscape in the predominantly Christian region of the Metn.

Inexplicable alliances have long been a tradition of Lebanese politics,
defined by short-sighted tactical partnerships rooted in the intense
rivalry of opposing parties, communities and political families. Such
alliances have played a key role in the struggle for power among the
various Christian factions.

The Christian Phalange Party and the Lebanese Forces - led by former
President Amine Gemayel and Samir Geagea respectively - joined forces
in the 2005 elections with the largely Sunni Future Movement (headed
by Saad Hariri, son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri)
and the Progressive Socialist Party headed by Druze leader Walid
Jumblatt. To strengthen their position at the ballot box, these four
parties, along with other smaller factions, joined forces with two
political heavyweights, the predominantly Shiite groups Hizbullah
(headed by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah) and Amal (headed by Parliament
Speaker Nabih Berri). The coalition, known as the Quadripartite
alliance, ran on the same electoral list during the 2005 vote, and
triumphed at the polls. The alliance later unravelled.

What now remains of the electoral coalition is a loose alliance diverse
parties known as the March 14 Movement. The March 14 alliance currently
holds a majority in Parliament, with 67 out 128 seats.

After resigning from the government in November of 2006, Hizbullah
and Amal joined the opposition, which includes the FPM. Since the
ministers' resignation, the two sides have failed to reach a compromise
on the balance of power in government. The power struggle intensified
in November of 2007, when President Emile Lahoud stepped down at the
end of his term. The presidential seat, traditionally occupied by a
Maronite Christian, has remained empty since then.

In fact, the postponement of presidential elections 19 times thus
far has incited Murr to warn Christian MPs who abstained from voting
that they might not be re-elected. "Christians should not be lied to;
under the false pretence of defending the rights of their community,
presidential elections are being blocked," he said.

"Murr believes presidential elections should take place as soon as
possible, while the FPM links elections to a basket of measures, such
as agreement on the future cabinet composition and the replacement
of the inequitable 2001 parliamentary law," said Armenian MP Hagop

So, what does the growing rift between Murr and Aoun over the
appointment of a president mean for the 2009 elections? The battle
for power in the Metn pits the Phalange party and LF against the FPM,
which is joined by a few independents, including Murr. The impact of
Murr's defection from the opposition can be measured by his political
weight in the area, which affects the outcome of eight parliamentary
seats: four Maronite positions, two Greek Orthodox, one Catholic and
one Armenian.

Research shows that participation of voters has been customarily low
in the area, as is the case with the rest of the country. According
to statistician Kamal Feghali, 51.2 percent of registered voters
participated in the 2005 elections, in which Murr gained 20,000
votes. In the 2007 by-elections (prompted by the assassination of
Phalange MP Pierre Gemayel), 47.2 percent of voters participated,
with 15,600 votes for Murr.

"There are currently four independent members of Parliament, of
which three are allied with the FPM - Pakradounian, Selim Salhab
and Ghassan Moukheiber - while the fourth is Michel Murr. Four other
seats are occupied by FPM deputies," explained Alain Aoun from the
opposition FPM.

According to Alain Aoun, Murr's new position will be restricted to
the Metn and will not affect national elections. "It is too early
to measure the exact repercussions of this new realignment on the
political landscape. The disagreement between Mr. Murr and the FPM
might dissipate before the 2009 elections, as long as the political
discourse remains toned down," he pointed out, adding that the
political context in 2009 will ultimately define the outcome of the
next parliamentary elections.

Another factor that could disrupt the balance of power in the Metn is
the Armenian vote. "Armenian voters represent some 12,000 votes in the
Metn, of which our party, Tashnag, traditionally garners 80 percent,"
explained Pakradounian.

"Murr's recent change of heart does guarantee his realignment with the
majority," said Pakradounian. "I think his main objective is to exert
enough pressure to resolve the deadlock and accelerate presidential
elections. My belief is that he is still trying to find a common
denominator between the opposition and majority.

"We maintain excellent relations with both Gen. Aoun and President
Murr, who are our allies, and their disagreement may be short-lived,"
he added.

While Tashnag's alliance with Michel Murr is more than 44 years old,
Pakradounian said that General Aoun has also frequently proven his
loyalty to the Armenian party by refusing to participate in the
cabinet in the absence of the Tashnag. - with The Daily Star