SLEIMAN MAY EMERGE AS WINNER OF JUNE POLLS
Michael Bluhm

The Daily Star
May 21 2009
Lebanon

Daily Star staff
Thursday, May 21, 2009

BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman might well emerge with the power
to determine the country's next government, if the June 7 elections
wind up as close as most observers expect, a number of analysts
told The Daily Star on Wednesday. "The role of the president will
be decisive in the post-election period," said Hilal Khashan, head
of the department of political studies and public administration at
the American University of Beirut.

Sleiman has echoed predictions of a miniscule victory margin in the
vote, saying he expected neither faction would garner a majority
of more than two deputies in the 128-seat Parliament. The two camps
have been feverishly wooing popular and unaligned candidates to join
their electoral lists, but speculation has persisted for months that
some of these centrist deputies would come together to form a third
alliance which adheres to Sleiman and acts as a swing bloc deciding
who takes power and which laws are passed.

"For some time the president has been trying to create a third wave,
or what they call an independent bloc," Khashan said. "The president
has been aspiring to play a key role."

Sleiman's budding role as kingmaker stands behind the Friday visit
to Lebanon by US Vice President Joe Biden, with Biden acting as a
suitor of the heaviest caliber to sway Sleiman toward the US-backed
March 14 Forces, Khashan added.

"It is clear that the Americans are interested in winning to their
side the president of Lebanon," Khashan said. "The Americans are
marketing [March 14] as the winning side, so they want him to be on
the winners' side."

With the outcome of the election entirely uncertain and electoral
couplings tenuous at best, the composition of such a presidential
bloc - as well as the make-ups of the parliamentary blocs of March 8
and March 14 - will remain unclear until after the June 7 poll, said
Walid Mubarak, director of the Institute of Diplomacy and Conflict
Transformation at the Lebanese American University.

"There's nothing that is stable as far as Lebanese political coalitions
are concerned," he said.

It seems, however, that Sleiman is staking out the vast political
middle abandoned as the squabbling rival factions drifted apart
into hardened, polarized positions, Mubarak added. With much of the
electorate fed up with the unceasing hostility, Sleiman's push into
center appears like rational political arithmetic, Mubarak said.

"In democracies it's basically those in the middle who win," he
said. "People are coming to the conclusion [that] if neither of the
two blocs wins the elections, it would be better."

With the history of political sabotage and armed violence between the
rival political camps, Sleiman's possible plan to carve out a centrist
bloc might also spring from a desire to add some stability to what
could well be a volatile post-election atmosphere, said retired General
Elias Hanna, who teaches political science at Notre Dame University.

As for those likely to align themselves with Sleiman, Metn MP Michel
Murr has decades of history of clinging to the country's heads of
state, and Sleiman has Murr's son Elias serving as defense minister
in the Cabinet. Former presidential candidate MP Butros Harb could
also wind up in Sleiman's camp, as could former Prime Minister and
telecommunications billionaire Najib Mikati, Hanna said.

In addition, Armenian candidates have been keeping some distance from
Free Patriotic Movement head MP Michel Aoun, their political ally
and patron, leaving the possibility open for a move toward Sleiman,
Hanna added. MP Hagop Pakradounian, running unopposed for the Metn's
Armenian Orthodox seat, said in a recent television appearance that
he saw flaws in the March 14 and March 8 formations, Hanna said.

Sleiman, for his part, has steadfastly refused to express any
favoritism for either of the two major factions. Even if the president
decides after the elections to throw his lot in with one of the
political camps, he will still avoid explicitly stating a preference,
said Khashan.

"The president of Lebanon always says that he remains an equal distance
between all the country's blocs," Khashan said. "He will never say
that he is leaning toward one group or the other, even if he leans
toward one side.

"He cannot stoop down to the level of being the leader of a minority
bloc that plays a swing role. He will play it very subtly."

Aside from the historic ideal of the Lebanese president remaining
above the above dangerous political fray, Sleiman would be making a
basic political error by declaring his leanings and opening himself
up to attack, Mubarak said. "It's not in his interest to take sides."

Eventually, however, Sleiman will have to make decisions - whether
himself or through independent MPs - that will upset one of the
factions vying for control, Khashan said. Aoun, the March 8 stalwart
and former presidential candidate, has been fostering tension with
Sleiman for some time, partly from Aoun's unrequited desire for
Sleiman's post, Khashan said.

Aoun "will never like a president other than himself," Khashan said,
adding that Sleiman's election made him Aoun's "instant enemy."

"Aoun will attack any president of Lebanon unless he's Michel Aoun,"
Khashan added. "After the elections, the president is bound to clash
with him."

Aoun's antagonism also stems from simple political calculus -
the deputies most likely to gravitate toward Sleiman hail from the
Christian-majority districts which Aoun counts on to build his bloc,
Hanna said.

"If [Sleiman] wants to take a part for himself, it's going to come
from Aoun's part and Suleiman Franjieh's part," Hanna said, referring
also to the Maronite MP from Zghorta who last week said Sleiman had
been meddling in the elections. Sleiman "is not going to compete
against Hizbullah in Baalbek. He's going to compete in Christian
areas, and Michel Aoun is claiming a monopoly over these areas,"
he added. "[Sleiman] will weaken Michel Aoun."

Sleiman has not revealed much of any political agenda he might pursue,
but he seems interested in restoring some of the presidential authority
lost to the prime minister and Parliament speaker in the 19898 Taif
Agreement which ended the 1975-90 Civil War, Khashan said.

"He really aspires to become the final arbiter of Lebanese politics,"
he said. "He wants to win back those prerogatives that were lost as
a result of Taif."

For now, Sleiman appears to be intentionally keeping a low profile,
waiting to broach difficult issues until sturdier backing in Parliament
and the Cabinet provides him with maneuvering room and a power base,
Hanna said. "Deep inside himself, he wants to govern," he said.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress