Cash pouring into Lebanon in advance of elections

Ed Lasky passes along this fascinating primer in Lebanese electoral politics by the New York Times' Robert F. Worth that is both heartbreaking and worrisome.

Lebanese democracy is unlike any other - a mish mash of clan and religious loyalties where patrons dispense goodies and cash to voters and candidates buy off the opposition in order to get them to withdraw from the race.

The familial ties that bind many Lebanese to the parties headed up by powerful patriarchs is paramount compared to what the politics involved might be. Most of this is due to an electoral law that guarantees no one religious sect will dominate. But it is also a long standing tradition in Lebanon and it appears that this time, massive amounts of foriegn money from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt will play a large role in determining the winners:

Mr. Worth:

Votes are being bought with cash or in-kind services. Candidates pay their competitors huge sums to withdraw. The price of favorable TV news coverage is rising, and thousands of expatriate Lebanese are being flown home, free, to vote in contested districts. The payments, according to voters, election monitors and various past and current candidates interviewed for this article, nurture a deep popular cynicism about politics in Lebanon, which is nominally perhaps the most democratic Arab state but in practice is largely governed through patronage and sectarian and clan loyalty.

Despite the vast amounts being spent, many Lebanese see the race - which pits Hezbollah and its allies against a fractious coalition of more West-friendly political groups - as almost irrelevant. Lebanon's sectarian political structure virtually guarantees a continuation of the current "national unity" government, in which the winning coalition in the 128-seat Parliament grants the loser veto powers to preserve civil peace.

Still, even a narrow win by Hezbollah and its allies, now in the parliamentary opposition, would be seen as a victory for Iran - which has financed Hezbollah for decades - and a blow to American allies in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt. So the money flows.

Candidates who eschew the system by running independently are not usually successful. What's more, they are a mystery to the average Lebanese voter. Consider this exchange between Walid Maalouf,  a banker who worked for a brief time as a diplomat while living in America, and a village leader that Maalouf was trying to lobby to support his independent bid:

Recently, Mr. Maalouf said, he was trying to explain to a village leader that he should think of candidates as employees, not patrons - someone they would hire to represent them effectively in the government.

"He looked at me," Mr. Maalouf recalled, "and then he said, ‘Go back to America.' "

Can Iran and Hezb'allah win? Not outright, although along with their Christian coalition partner Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement they may receive enough votes to form a government. If that happens, Iran will have a foothold in one of the most strategic spits of land in the region. And the threat they would pose to Israel would put a hair trigger on the prospect of war.