By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
BEIRUT, June 8 -- In four tumultuous years, Saad Hariri, the billionaire at the center of Lebanese politics, has weathered his father's assassination, a war with Israel and a near civil collapse when the Shiite Hezbollah party seized the country's capital by force.
But in rebounding with an unexpected win in Sunday's parliamentary election, the 39-year-old politician faces one of his most difficult dilemmas yet, according to allies and local political analysts. If, as expected, he becomes the nation's next prime minister, he will be left to reconcile the anti-Hezbollah rhetoric of his campaign with the Islamist group's continued power to make demands and set its own course in confronting Israel.
The choice, local analysts say, is between a showdown with his supporters, a showdown with Hezbollah or -- the more likely outcome -- a continued stalemate over the very issues voters hoped they were addressing in Sunday's balloting. Hezbollah's close ties to Syria and Iran, and the extensive militia it maintains to combat Israel, were key issues in the campaign and helped push Christian, Sunni and Druze voters to back Hariri's slate of pro-Western candidates.
Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at the American University in Beirut, said, "It is a much more complicated situation after the elections than prior to it," with Hariri facing immediate choices over whether to extend Hezbollah's current veto over cabinet decisions and how aggressively to negotiate with the group over its massive store of arms. "If Hariri forms a cabinet and does not give the opposition veto power, Hezbollah will march into Beirut the next morning. If he gives Hezbollah veto power, he lets down the people who support him."
Hariri's dilemma began taking shape less than a day after a coalition led by his Future Movement defied polls predicting a pro-Hezbollah parliament and captured 71 of 128 seats. In a nationally televised speech Monday, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah said the group accepted the election results "in a sporting spirit." However, he said, the group's weapons are off-limits.
"There is a difference between popular majority and parliamentary majority," Nasrallah said, a reference to the growing size of the Shiite population in Lebanon, where politics is organized along sectarian lines. The group's militia is "not to impose political realities. This saying was a lie. The role of the arms is to defend the country" against Israel.
In Washington, President Obama welcomed the outcome of the vote, coming just days after his Cairo speech calling for renewed peace efforts in the region.
"The high turnout and the candidates -- too many of whom know personally the violence that has marred Lebanon -- are the strongest indications yet of the Lebanese desire for security and prosperity," Obama said. Turnout topped 54 percent and reached 70 percent in some closely contested areas.
The United States is more accustomed to Islamist groups doing better than expected in elections, and "dodged a bullet" with the success of Hariri's group, said political analyst Karim Makdisi. If Hezbollah had won, "it would have been the first real test of Obama: What do you mean by engagement?"
Instead, the test will be Hariri's.
"The moment of truth is now. Does he want to be a national statesman and move on" from his role as leader of a populist faction that took root after his father's 2005 death in a car bombing, Makdisi wondered. The statesman's role would require him to distance himself from the international tribunal investigating the killing, and develop relationships with Syria, Hezbollah and others suspected of possible involvement, he said.
Hariri has not divulged his plans. Under Lebanon's system, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim. Hariri's Sunni-dominated party won 29 seats on its own, and he would be the likely candidate to take over from Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who was weakened by the chaotic events of the past few years.
But the widespread assumption is that he wants the job, continuing what has been a step-by-step process of assuming his father's mantle.
As with the elder Hariri, family wealth became an issue in the campaign. From a Saudi-based construction company begun by Rafiq al-Hariri, the family's investments expanded to Lebanese television, media and banking companies, a Turkish telecommunications operator and real estate. Saad Hariri's current net worth is estimated at $1.4 billion.
Allegations of vote-buying surfaced in this election, augmented by an organized campaign to fly home expatriate Lebanese from around the world so they could vote, as required, in their home towns.
International and local observer groups noted that the allegations surfaced against both sides, but overall judged the election to have been well run and reflective of public opinion.
Having steered the March 14 coalition of Sunni Muslims and Christians into the majority, Future Party parliament member Mohammed Kabbani said there was little doubt Hariri would take the next step.
"He is ready for it," Kabbani said. "You could say that in 2005, Rafiq won the elections," when the assassination galvanized the Lebanese opposition. "But now it is Saad who won. He has proven himself."
Special correspondent Alia Ibrahim contributed to this report.