What are Hezbollah’s ambitions for the next government?
The Shiite party would rather have a power vacuum than a cabinet that doesn’t comply with its wishes, according to one analyst.
Hezbollah has continued to strongly defend the request of its Sunni allies even after it was categorically rejected by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri. This steadfast support has raised questions about Hezbollah’s political program and intentions for Lebanon’s next government.
With a fresh round of US sanctions raising the stakes, it appears that Hezbollah is trying to establish a new political reality in Lebanon by shifting the balance of power in the country further in its favor.
During the years that the Syrian regime exerted a strong influence on Lebanon’s internal politics, Hezbollah was reluctant to be represented in the government and focused instead on its strategic interests as “the resistance”. But after the departure of Syrian troops in 2005 and the 2006 war with Israel, the group gradually began to change its tactics. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict accelerated this trend. The party now prefers to be part of the government, participating in Lebanon’s clientelist game, like all major parties, to secure and deliver its share of patronage to its supporters. The ability to access this patronage will become increasingly important as Iranian funding is likely to decrease in the future.
Since legislative elections in May, Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, has clearly stated that the party does not intend to relinquish any of its political power. According to some analysts, the group is concerned and acting defensively to protect its position and safeguard its legitimacy. A government sympathetic to its interests would be the best way to achieve these goals, and Hezbollah is trying to achieve this outcome, whatever the cost.
According to sources close to the party, however, Hezbollah is unconcerned by the new American sanctions and has never been so powerful and confident. It is taking an offensive position – rather than defensive one – and seeking to impose the government formula best suited to its interests.
Endorsing the demands of the pro-March 8 Sunnis, according to the same sources, is simply a move to improve its image by showing that it has alliances with other sects, including Sunnis and Druze, and not just with the Free Patriotic Movement, representing a segment of the Christian community. "It's a symbolic image that [Hezbollah] would like to project; that the party is not as monochromatic as it is said to be," said Ahmad Moussalli, an expert on islamist movements.
"Bang its fist on the table"
Hezbollah is not trying to acquire more power within the government, according to Moussalli, who added that securing an additional minister wouldn’t make a significant difference, even though it would give the party and its allies the one-third of seats necessary to block any government decision. "The party only has to bang its fist on the table to get what it wants,” he said, pointing out that the party is strong enough to exert its influence over the government with or without the so called blocking third.
But despite being aware that the prime minister-designate will not give his opponents within the Sunni community a seat, Hezbollah is not giving up. It is seeking a government that suits its interests, or no government at all, according to Hilal Khashan, a professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Because of international pressure, Khashan continued, Hezbollah wants a government in which it will have free rein. "How else can we understand its refusal to compromise so far?” he asked.
Furthermore, by pushing to bring the Ministry of Health into its portfolio, a move that would reward its electoral base, “the party might be able… to compensate for the scarcity in foreign aid[...] since the US decided to drain its resources,” Khashan, of AUB, said.
Moussalli pushed back against the idea that Hezbollah is experiencing financial pressure. "Hezbollah has financial reserves likely to cover its expenses for the next decade,” he said.
Gaining control of the Ministry of Health, Moussalli continued, is not that important for Hezbollah because the party funds an extensive network of hospitals and charitable associations. Although its supporters would benefit to some degree if it took control of the post, Moussalli added, the prestige that the party would gain by forcing reforms, such as a drastic reduction in prescription drug costs, would be much more significant. Measures like this would be extremely popular, according to several observers, and could help Hezbollah restore its image as a reformist party within Lebanese society as a whole.
But a March 14 source quoted in the local news agency al-Markazia goes further, saying that Hezbollah, by “force of a fait accompli” instead of constitutional reform, is pushing for a reorganization of the traditional power sharing formula in Lebanon, which calls for parity between muslims and christians in government, in favor of a three-thirds formula that distributes power between the Christians, Sunnis and Shiites.
By blocking the formation of the government, Hezbollah is attempting to undermine the constitutional prerogatives of the head of state and the prime minister and impose a new balance of power, according to the source.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 12th of December)