Lebanon: MP assassinated days before elections

Government and opposition struggle intensifies

A pro-government Lebanese MP, Antoine Ghanim, and four others, were killed by a car blast on Wednesday 19 September, in Beirut, just days before the Lebanese Parliament is to elect a new president. The assassination led to physical clashes in parts of the capital city, with fears of violence erupting between pro-government and opposition supporters.

Thursday and Friday, this week, were declared official days of mourning, with all businesses closed, and school and university classes cancelled.

Pro-government officials immediately pointed the finger at Syria, tying the assassination of MP Ghanem to the coming elections, and claiming the killing was aimed to deprive the ruling coalition of its parliamentary majority.

Meanwhile, opposition leaders expressed concerns over how this killing could be used by pro-government figures to argue that the UN Security Council oversees elections, just as the governing parties call for the UN International Tribunal to investigate the circumstances surrounding assassinations of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians in recent years.

Lebanon has been convulsed by political crisis for many months, producing a stalemate between pro and anti-Syrian factions in parliament. From 1975 to the early 1990s, Lebanon suffered civil war, in which regional powers, including Israel and Syria, used the country as an arena for conflicts. Syria withdrew it armed forces from the country, in 2005, but still has important political influence in Lebanon. Pro-government politicians and Western powers blame Syria for a string of assassinations over recent years.

This Wednesday’s blast shook a densely populated and mostly Christian suburb in Beirut. The far-right Christian Phalange Party, which Ghanem was a member of, has now lost its second and last MP. Ghanem was the fourth pro-government MP assassinated since 2005 parliamentary elections.

There are deep political divisions between the parliamentary majority and opposition forces. The ruling majority’s voting weight in parliament now is 68 out of 128 seats, while the opposition holds 59.

Two presidents and two governments?

Many working people in Lebanon fear the country is sliding towards greater tensions and conflict. Two ‘presidents’ could be elected, thus leading to two competing ‘governments’. This is possible, given that the two sides in parliament have not reached an agreement on over the president position and President Lahoud’s term expires on 24 November.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and the ‘14th March Forces’ that formed after the assassination of ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, in February 2005, have Western backing. Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement demand the Siniora government’s removal. Over the last few months, the opposition organized large street protests in Beirut.

After the assassination of anti-Syrian MP Walid Eido, last June, Antoine Ghanem and 40 other pro-government MPs, traveled abroad for their safety. They returned to Lebanon, just this week, for the 60-day presidential election process, which starts on 25 September and ends on 24 November.

The Head of Parliament and opposition figure, Nabih Berri, called for two-thirds of members of Parliament to be present in the chamber on 25 September. Formerly, the opposing parties in parliament would need to reach a compromise to get the two thirds. The 49th clause of the Lebanese constitution, related to the presidential election procedure, is open to interpretations, as it calls for a two-third majority followed by a simple majority.

The pro-government alliance, called ‘14th March’, is only calling for a simple majority to elect the president. Given the latest assassination, and the number of pro-government MP’s not in favor of this call, it is not even clear whether the half plus one is guaranteed. In return, the opposition threatens to boycott the vote and block the process.

The US led the cries of outrage over the assassination of Ghanem, and pointed a finger at Damascus. Meanwhile, the EU urged the Lebanese government to go ahead with the elections on 25 September.

Considering the latest tensions in relation to Iran’s nuclear development, and threats of future strikes on Iran, and given the Ghanem assassination comes only two weeks after an Israeli air strike on Syria, it is unclear how the next few weeks will unfold in Lebanon. The ‘security question’ in the country is always very much tied with regional and international politics.

However, what is clear is that the workers and the poor are paying a heavy price. The four other lives lost in this week’s bomb blast were barely mentioned by the media. Living costs are shooting up, making conditions unbearable for working people. The working class of Lebanon, from whatever confessional background they come, need a political programme that is an alternative to war and poverty.

This means the Lebanese working class developing independent class policies and rejecting the main parties. When workers go on strike to improve conditions they are told by pro-capitalist politicians that the economic and security situation “cannot handle it”. Yet, pro-government leaders called a memorial march and a two-day work stoppage to mourn Ghanem’s death.

The current political crisis, and the way the politicians are exploiting and benefiting from it, confirms the rottenness of the current political system in Lebanon. The welfare of the masses necessitates the need to radically change the system. A socialist movement, with mass support, could unite the working class, and provide the basis for a struggle to end to poverty and insecurity, and also break the domination of confessional-based politics in Lebanon.

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