The announcement last Sunday by Druze leader and Socialist party head Walid Jumblatt that he would be leaving the March 14 coalition has reshuffled the political deck in Lebanon and put the government formation process on hold.
Although the timing and tone of Jumblatt’s announcement caught many by surprise, his shift in position is not altogether sudden. In previous months he had made various statements reaching out to Hizbullah and the opposition and distancing himself from some of March 14’s positions. The causes for the change are numerous.
First, Jumblatt realizes that the regional and international winds have been changing. The March 14 coalition was born amidst a strong confrontation between the Bush administration, aided by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, on the one hand, and Syria and Iran on the other. The Bush administration tempered its outright hostility to Syria in 2007, while the Obama administration has made reaching out to Syria a key element of its regional policy. Washington has resumed high level contacts with Syria and is sending back its ambassador. Saudi Arabia has also ended its boycott of Syria and the two are having high-level meetings. There was even talk of Saad Hariri visiting Damascus after the government is formed.
In this context, Jumblatt didn’t want to be left out of the new alignment. Jumblatt had been seeking to mend fences with the Syrians for some time. His vitriolic statements in previous years against the Syrian government and the person of President Bashar al-Assad made reconciliation all the more difficult. It is possible that the strong tone of his statement publicly renouncing his ‘relations’ with March 14 had been required by Syria as part of the cost of accepting him again. Hours after the statement, news circulated of a possible visit by Jumblatt to Syria in the next days or weeks.
A second reason relates to the events of May 2008. In the battles that broke out between Hizbullah and the March 14 coalition in and around Beirut, Jumblatt found himself in the middle of a dangerous Sunni-Shii civil war. The Sunnis, although willing to provoke Hizbullah, were unwilling or unable to fight; while Jumblatt’s seasoned fighters found themselves fighting an uneven battle to protect their mountain strongholds from a superior Hizbullah. The March 14 coalition was born in 2005 as a response to the assassination of Rafik Hariri and a movement to push Syrian forces out of Lebanon; but Jumblatt realized that he had ended up in the middle of a sectarian confrontation. A Der Spiegel article in May of 2009 further fueled fears that Hizbullah might be implicated in the Hariri assassination—a development that would dramatically heighten tensions between Sunnis and Shiis, and more reason for Jumblatt to get out of the way.
Jumblatt announced that he was leaving the March 14 coalition in a speech made at a party conference. He said that his membership in the coalition had been “out of necessity”; he implied that the coalition had been a necessary response to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and had achieved its main goal of establishing an international investigation and tribunal to adjudicate it. He described the erst-while alliance with the neo-conservatives in Washington as a “black spot” in his party’s history that he would accept responsibility for. He said that he and his party had to go back to their leftist and Arabist roots and that he would be looking for alternative forms of political alliance in Lebanon.
Jumblatt had been a main leader in the March 14 coalition and ‘Cedar Revolution’. He was one limb of the three-legged alliance that brought together Sunni, Christian and Druze parties. He was one of the Syrian regime’s harshest critics and brought to the alliance his own Arab and international contacts. With his band of several thousand armed followers in the foothills east and south of Beirut, he also brought muscle to the alliance. The announcement of his departure has left the March 14 coalition in turmoil. Its leader, prime minister designate Saad Hariri, promptly left the country for a period of ‘political reflection’.
In a more procedural level, Jumblatt’s announcement threw a spanner into the complex process of forming a new government after the parliamentary elections of June 7. Jumblatt had been part of the coalition that had won a majority in those elections. After weeks of talks, some of which involved Syrian-Saudi meetings as well, the parties had seemed close to agreement based on a power-sharing formula which would give 15 seats to the majority coalition, 10 seats to the opposition coalition, and 5 seats to the President.
With Jumblatt’s defection these calculations are thrown into disarray. He cannot be counted any longer from among the March 14 share, nor has he joined the March 8 opposition, nor can he be considered part of the president’s ministerial bloc. Moreover, if all of his parliamentary bloc leaves March 14—and this is still not clear—the coalition will no longer have a majority in parliament, thus undoing the results of the June elections, and putting into question Saad Hariri’s nomination as Prime Minister Designate.
In subsequent remarks, especially after a high level meeting with a Saudi envoy, Jumblatt said that he does not want to obstruct the government formation process, that he supports Hariri in his government formation efforts, and that although he is no longer part of the March 14 coalition, he has not withdrawn from the ‘parliamentary majority’ and respects the will of the voters who elected him and his parliamentary colleagues as part of that majority. In other words, while trying to rebuild bridges with Syria, Jumblatt does not want to burn his bridges with Saudi Arabia or with Saad Hariri either. These remarks, however, only paper over serious conundrums that his change of position has created.
The March 14 will survive this defection, but is definitely weakened. It remains as an alliance between the Sunni Future Movement, and a number of Christian leaders and parties but has lost its Druze limb. Jumblatt will maintain good relations with the coalition and its leader Saad Hariri, but will also develop good relations with other groups in the country. He will seek a centrist position. He shares this drift to the ‘center’ with parliament speaker and Shiite Amal movement leader Nabih Berri, as well as with the President of the Republic. March 14’s majority in parliament is now totally dependent on Jumblatt’s cooperation.
After the dust settles over the next few days, efforts will resume to form a government. Saad Hariri is still the consensus choice to form that government, and he will have little choice but to live with this uncomfortable change. The improved relations between Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the US indicate that the tendency toward accommodation will prevail and make it likely that the government will eventually be formed, despite this new complicating factor. The most likely power sharing outcome appears to be 13 ministers for March 14, 2 ministers for Jumblatt, 5 ministers for the President, and 10 for the opposition. This would be a government with no clear majority and in which virtually all decisions would have to be made by consensus or by reaching across coalition lines. This is certainly not a formula for efficient and effective government, but reflects the complex realities of Lebanon’s current politics.
Once in place, such a government would face a backlog of political and socio-economic policy challenges that have been ignored for several years. Moreover, if the peace process gets back on track in the next few months, this government might also find itself having to negotiate peace with the Israelis. All the more reason for Jumblatt to want to get out of the front lines of March 14, move closer to Syria, and get out of the way of Hezbollah’s ire if it begins to be squeezed by regional developments.