The victory of the March 14th alliance in Lebanese parliamentary elections June 7 is a welcome surprise. For many, the election was a referendum on Hezbollah and the armed resistance movement it represents as well as on the continued influence of Syria and Iran over Lebanese politics.

The victory of the alliance, a Western-oriented group headed by the son of assassinated Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, signals a favorable shift in Middle Eastern politics. The key now is to ensure that the election win translates into establishment of a working government. That is a formidable assignment, given Hezbollah’s demand for a veto over Lebanese policy and the factionalism that divides any Beirut government.

Lebanese politics divides along religious lines. One of the most important divisions is between Sunnis, who side with the March 14th alliance, and Shiites, who comprise a third of the population and back Hezbollah. Christians, one-third of the population and another powerful group, are also divided. One faction is headed by Mr. Michel Aoun, a former general. A small number of other Christian parties have joined the March 14th alliance.

Just as important as these divisions is the split between Lebanese who seek Syrian involvement in their politics and those who fear it. Damascus has looked at Lebanon as part of its sphere of influence, and a buffer zone between itself and Israel, which still possesses the Golan Heights, seized in the 1967 war. Syria and Iran support Hezbollah as a means of pressuring Israel. (Hezbollah gets considerable support from Shiites who see it as their champion against Sunni domination and Israel, as well as from Lebanese who applaud its ability to provide basic social services the government fails to offer.)

Opposition to Hezbollah goes beyond mere religious divides, however. Some worry about foreign interference in Lebanese affairs. Others blame the organization for drawing the country into the 2006 war with Israel after the group launched an incursion into Israel and kidnapped two soldiers. That conflict resulted in over 1,000 Lebanese deaths and left thousands homeless.

The March 14th alliance — whose name comes from the date of a popular uprising in 2005 against Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs — comprises Sunni Muslims, Druse and Christian parties. Most observers expected the alliance, which has been in power since 2005, to lose. Party members have been assassinated; the electoral system has been delegitimized by constant opposition complaints; and Parliament has been nearly paralyzed by actions taken by Hezbollah and its allies. Only a foreign-brokered compromise that gave Hezbollah a veto over certain decisions broke the logjam.

In the election, more than half the voting population — 54 percent — backed the opposition. But an archaic voting system reserves seats for each of 16 recognized religious sects according to a long-outdated census by a formula that splits the legislature equally between Christians and Muslims. The alliance claimed 71 of the Parliament’s 128 seats, a solid majority.

Even more surprising was the readiness of the losers to accept the results. There was some grumbling about the electoral system and about vote buying, but even the critics conceded they could not overturn the result. That does not mean they are prepared to quietly accept minority status. Hezbollah continues to dominate Shiite communities. Hezbollah leaders insist that they will not give up the armed struggle. One of its members of Parliament said its weapons were “not to be touched” and that the “resistance was not up for discussion.”

The key question is whether the new government will extend the veto that the opposition has enjoyed so far. The country’s fractious politics demands a unified government, but the opposition may not want seats in the Cabinet as that would make it responsible for government policy. A veto is far more convenient, and the opposition is threatening to resort to a new campaign of violence if it doesn’t get it. Finding a workable solution will take creativity and vision.

The coalition win is a positive development for the region. It is a setback for Syrian attempts to claim a bigger role in the region through proxy control in Beirut. Hezbollah is identified as a terrorist group by the U.S. A victory by it in the election would have created a dilemma for Washington as it presses ahead with peace negotiations. The U.S. had warned that its aid to Lebanon would be affected by the election results; it is not clear how powerful that threat was, but the prospect of a continuing relationship with the U.S. clearly appealed to many Lebanese voters.

Now, a new government must be formed. Horse trading is an inevitable part of that process, but there must be limits to that. The ability to actually govern must not be subject to negotiation. The people of Lebanon deserve a government that works for them, not one that sees their country as a battlefield for foreign interests or as an opportunity to line their pockets. The country’s friends must do their best to see that they get it.

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