Lebanon's Swing Vote
An election boosts President Obama's call for change in the Middle East -- and challenges one of his theories.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

IN HIS CAIRO address last week, President Obama cautioned that "elections alone do not make true democracy." That is true, of course -- but on Sunday, Lebanon offered a demonstration of how valuable a free and fair vote can be, even in a country where other political and human rights are not fully respected. A hotly contested parliamentary election produced an unexpectedly decisive victory for the pro-Western coalition that has led the Lebanese government for the past four years. The outcome was a sharp reverse for the Hezbollah movement and for Iran and Syria, which had hoped to establish dominion over Lebanon.

The winning coalition of Sunni, Christian and Druze parties is no match for Hezbollah in the streets; the Islamist movement used force to seize control of most of Beirut last year, and it compelled the government to grant it veto power over its decisions. Hezbollah also launched a destructive war against Israel in 2006 that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora was powerless to stop. Rearmed by Iran and Syria, the Shiite movement may be able to use the same leverage on the next Lebanese government. But its political defeat, which leader Hassan Nasrallah was forced to acknowledge on Monday, probably will constrain its actions: It will be less likely to launch new provocations against Israel, for example. The prestige of Mr. Nasrallah, treated as a hero by the region's satellite television networks after the 2006 war, has been dented.

All of this will reinforce the standing of Mr. Obama, whose speech was aimed at swaying opinion in Muslim countries away from extremists like Mr. Nasrallah, Osama bin Laden and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Some Arab commentators were giving Mr. Obama credit for pushing Lebanese voters into the pro-Western camp; whether or not that is true, the election will add to the incipient momentum of U.S. policies on the region. On Friday comes another election in another country that few would describe as free: Iran. In recent days, the following of Mir Hossein Mousavi, a moderate challenger to Mr. Ahmadinejad, has appeared to swell. If he wins, the prospect that Iran will take up Mr. Obama's offer of negotiations will be brighter.

Mr. Obama is right that democracy and the rule of law depend on more than elections. But it's almost impossible to have the rule of law and an accountable government without elections, and he should not discount their importance. Let's hope their value is demonstrated in Iran as it has been in Lebanon.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company