April 11, 2022
The received wisdom in the aftermath of Russia’s attack on Ukraine was that it would precipitate a collapse in support for the Kremlin-aligned far right throughout the Western world.
However, despite the massive European outpouring of support for Ukraine, two of Vladimir Putin’s closest European allies — in Hungary and Serbia — scored easy wins in recent elections. Given President Viktor Orban’s iron grip over the Hungarian media and institutions, this wasn’t a huge shock, but it may indicate that European public opposition to Russia’s invasion is shallower than first thought — which could spark further challenges as the impact of millions of refugees and conflict-fueled inflation bite further. Orban even described Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as his “opponent.”
In the French presidential election, the second-round runoff between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen on April 24 looks likely to be closely fought. Why does this matter? Because Le Pen is the pretty face of the xenophobic, pro-Moscow, populist, neo-fascist extreme right.
Macron is suffering from dire popularity ratings in a nation where presidents are rarely awarded a second term. He isn’t without his failings, but he is exactly the leader that France and Europe need right now. In a continent direly lacking in visionary leadership, Macron is a centrist who believes in taking an assertive position on the global stage. He is one of the few Western leaders who continue to engage with Putin in seeking to work toward a pragmatic outcome in Ukraine, and one of even fewer who have sought to engage with the Lebanon morass.
Meanwhile Le Pen’s Rassemblement National has fought political campaigns with borrowed Russian money, and only since the Ukraine invasion has she tried to distance herself from Putin, having previously boasted of their closeness. With a distracted Macron absent from the campaign until the past week, Le Pen smiles sweetly and engages voters in their concerns about the cost of living, obscuring her anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, anti-EU and anti-NATO ideology.
A critical mass of such disruptive leaders as Orban and Le Pen would be a disaster for the EU’s efforts to present a united front toward Putin; they may seek to quit or dismantle the bloc, or find themselves thrown out.
Meanwhile in Lebanon, Hezbollah continues to dominate a fragmented electoral landscape, in a situation where a plethora of opposition candidates are largely running against each other — and thus are likely to lose out to the same corrupt old faces. With over 1,000 candidates, there are more women and more young people standing than ever before. There are more than 100 electoral lists, including a “national council for ending Iranian occupation” comprising Christian and Muslim civil society figures.
Much is at stake, with the new parliament due to elect a successor to President Michel Aoun. Most Lebanese are anxious that this should be anyone who isn’t Gebran Bassil. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s iftar last week with two figures with presidential ambitions, Bassil and Suleiman Franjieh, appeared to be an attempt to neutralize infighting between these bitter rivals for the sake of maximum parliamentary gain, while securing Nasrallah’s role as Shiite kingmaker for the Christian Maronite presidency.
Never has the situation looked bleaker. Deputy Prime Minister Saadeh Al-Shami warned last week that Lebanon was bankrupt and the political classes were living in a state of denial. The currency has lost 90 percent of its value and national debt has soared to $100 billion, more than double GDP. The banking sector’s losses are estimated at more than $70 billion. The election may even be delayed for a number of reasons, one being that the national electricity company cannot guarantee uninterrupted power for the voting and counting centers.
Most Lebanese see themselves as hostages to regional and global factors. Tehran blocks progress as long as nuclear negotiations remain deadlocked, Iran and its proxies attack Western and Gulf targets, and national finances are buffeted by soaring food prices related to the Ukraine conflict.
Many of these challenges could be ameliorated if citizens came together to ensure that Hezbollah and its allies decisively lost the vote, although the Iraq experience demonstrates that even when Tehran’s allies are soundly thrashed in elections it is not easy to force them to relinquish political influence.
The problem in these nominally democratic Arab states, as well as throughout much of Europe and also in Russia, is that a critical mass of citizens dance to the tune of corrupt populist politicians who play on their base fears and prejudices, while swamping them in a deluge of lies and propaganda and plundering billions of dollars of citizens’ wealth. In France, the cradle of sophisticated civilization, it’s not unlikely that half those voting could lend their support to somebody widely seen as a neo-fascist, while in Russia a convincing majority of citizens appear to support an illegal and incompetently fought war.
Even the culture wars waged by Hezbollah and the Western far right to whip up popular support against so-called “liberal values” are remarkably similar. Hezbollah has also been playing the sectarian religious card more aggressively than before, raising concerns of conflict amid Lebanon’s precarious status quo.
Every single Lebanese citizen would be massively better off if Hezbollah were electorally eliminated, but they and their cronies will almost certainly win enough votes to attain their talismanic “blocking third” and the ability to paralyse and sabotage the political system.
Such are levels of public disenchantment in Lebanon and France that crucial proportions of society are unlikely to vote, thus tossing the advantage to extremists. Many Lebanese can’t even afford petrol to get to the polling stations.
The election of Le Pen would be a catastrophe for European unity at this critical moment in history, and Lebanon cannot survive four more years of the failed Hezbollah-dominated consensus. Consequences would include a massive new exodus of citizens, IMF refusal to prevent further economic meltdown, and likely civil conflict that could deteriorate into regionalized war.
Both these elections themselves are little short of a war between good and evil — between competent and conscientious figures who believe in democratic accountable governance, and rabble-rousing extremists who seek to drag the world back into the cultural and political dark ages.
Voters must grasp what is at stake before it’s too late.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state. Her new book, “Militia State —The Rise of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi and the Eclipse of the Iraqi Nation State,” is published by Nomad Publishing.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point of view