Lebanon’s Tashnag: Making Friends With Everyone

The Tashnag party’s election clock is not yet ticking, but its wheels are constantly turning. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Roula Ibrahim

Published Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Lebanon’s principal Armenian political party, Tashnag, remains committed to its partnership with the Aounists. However, it is keeping all channels open ahead of next years parliamentary elections.

The Tashnag Party is pursuing a policy of outreach these days as a way of winning the hearts of both friends and foes. Its alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is solid, but that does not make it captive to its ally’s policies. The last municipal elections brought it around the same table as the Future Movement, MP Michel al-Murr, the Lebanese Forces (LF) and the Phalangists.

“We are comfortable with our alliance with the FPM, and also open to all options. Our aim is to form broad alliances across the entirety Christian street,” says Metn MP Hagop Pakradounian.

The party’s recent meeting with the Gemayel family was in line with this thinking, and part of an effort to “dispel the heavy summer clouds that overshadowed the previous period,” he says. Today, “we have no fundamental political quarrel with the Phalangists, but we differ due to their membership of March 14. So we prefer to discuss what we agree on.”

Pakradounian does not rule out the possibility of the Tashnag forming an electoral alliance with the Phalangists. The lunch cleared the air between the two sides, enabling both to recall the good relations they enjoyed in former times and identify current areas of agreement. A “return visit” then ensured that the barrier to cooperation between them, which had never been substantive, was overcome, he says. Pakradounian recalls in this regard the 2009 parliamentary elections, when some Armenian votes were allocated to Sami Gemayel, though the latter refuses to acknowledge that.

Pakradounian says relations with the LF are cordial. Being a stickler for protocol, the Tashnag repaid Samir Gegea’s visit to its headquarters by dispatching a delegation to visit him at his residence. “Geagea has a representative capacity which we respect, and we appreciate his gesture toward us. But our political disagreements exceed our areas of agreement.”

Ties with Michel Murr, in contrast, are exceptional, and transcend the formal political meetings and ecounters. “We have a permanent honeymoon,” he remarks. “We confer continually, although we haven’t yet spoken in detail about the elections.”

Another Tashnag official indicates that the party has decided to “forgive but not forget” past political wrongs done to it. It would indeed be hard to forget things like Gemayel’s racist comments after the 2007 Metn by-elections, Murr’s frequent electoral “slips of the tongue”, and the LF’s “devious” attempts to bypass the party and sponsor rivals to it within its community.

He contrasts this with “the goodwill shown by the Aounists who reached out to form an alliance with us, refusing to let the Armenian vote and voice be sidelined or the Tashnag excluded from government”. The party thus considers its partnership with the FPM to be “unbreakable, however hard those who don’t like it may try,” especially as it does not commit it to any specific policy line. That was made plain when the party backed Saad Hariri for the premiership, unlike the FPM’s legislators.

Yet Tashnag has an issue with Future Movement. A party official says that its secretary-general, Hovig Mekhitarian, received a promise from the late Rafik al-Hariri in 2004 that the Armenians’ “proper” parliamentary representation in Beirut would be respected. But when Saad al-Hariri took over as the Movement’s leader, he opted to “retain his father’s employees.”

The main problem, explains Pakradounian, lies in the “subservience” of minor Armenian parties other than the Tashnag to other groups. As a result, they neither decide who their community’s MPs will be, nor have a say in the selection of others. The Tashnag, in contrast, “makes its decisions independently, through internal party discussions, without any pressure from its allies.”

A veteran Tashnagi details the Armenian’ political divisions. In Metn, you’ll find Armenians in the Tashnag club and Phalangist and LF Armenians. In Beirut there are Future Movement Armenians, LF Armenians and Tashnag Armenians. In Zahleh, the Armenian MP, Shant Janjanian of the LF, got 7 percent of the Armenian vote, and is afraid to go near his village. He was named as part of a horse-trade between Geagea and Hariri, under which the LF withdrew its Armenian candidate from Beirut First District in exchange for Janjanian being added to the Zahleh list.

But the Tashnag’s problem with the Future Movement goes deeper. In 2009, electoral considerations prevented the two sides from reaching agreement. At the time, according to Pakradounian, the Future Movement proposed a deal under which the Tashnag would get two seats in Beirut (including an unchallenged run at the Second District seat) in exchange for it supporting 17 candidates fielded by March 14 in Beirut, the Metn and Zahleh. “The party refused to bargain over its political position and convictions in exchange for winning or losing an extra seat,“ he says.

Regarding Syria, Pakradounian dismisses critics who accuse the party of kow-towing to the regime, insisting its relations with Damascus are based on parity and mutual respect. Alluding to one of those critics, an independent Metn Armenian, he retorts: “We have no vested interests with Damascus. We do not own apartments or palaces there. Our party didn’t crawl down the road to Damascus when the Syrians were present in Lebanon, and didn’t change its tune once they left.”

Relations with Walid Jumblatt, meanwhile, seem one-sided. They do not appear to have developed beyond an invitation for a Tashnag delegation to lunch with the Jumblatt, who reciprocated with a visit to the party’s Burj Hammoud headquarters.

The Tashnag party’s election clock is not yet ticking, but its wheels are constantly turning. Aounists in the Metn are confident, nevertheless, that “2013 will be a replica of 2009 in terms of the alliances, lists and the vacant Armenian seat.” They add, mischievously, that “some of the Tashnag’s votes will go to Sami Gemayel and Michel Murr,” so making a breakthrough is a must.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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