According to a recent Sofres poll, Lebanese Christians have become steadily more critical of opposition leader Michel Aoun since the escalation of Lebanon’s political crisis in January. Nevertheless, Aoun remains the most popular choice for president. Explaining this situation goes a long way to revealing Aoun’s political strengths and weaknesses.
According to the poll’s findings, the ongoing political deadlock has caused Aoun’s reputation to erode significantly among Christians. In a January Sofres poll, 50% of Christians stated that they had a favorable impression of Aoun, while 40% had a negative impression. By May, only 41% of Christians answered that they had a favorable opinion, and 52% had a negative opinion.
In contrast, March 14 leader Samir Geagea saw his favorability rating improve from 43% positive and 45% negative in January, to 54% positive and 40% negative in May.
The decline in Aoun’s reputation has been mirrored by a Christian shift toward March 14 in general. Christian support for March 14 grew from 35% in January to 42% in May, while support for March 8 shrunk slightly during the same time period, from 34% to 31%. 27% of Christians, however, still respond that they support neither March 8 nor March 14, a figure that has been relatively stable throughout the duration of the conflict.
The engine for this growing discontent seems to be Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah. Many Christians are, and always have been, wary of the armed Shia group. When asked which party represented the greatest threat to them, 25% of Christians, a plurality, named Hezbollah. 55% of Christians favored the unconditional disarmament of Hezbollah in May – an increase from 47% two months prior. Disapproval of Aoun’s Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah has also increased recently, from 41% in March to 52% in May.
Aoun’s advisors should be telling him that his presidential chances remain good – but that his alliance with Hezbollah is causing him to slowly bleed Christian support. He is currently benefiting from divided Christian strength among the March 14 forces and the strong support base he built up before 2005. However, these are two rapidly-dissolving advantages: the March 14 coalition will likely soon unite around a presidential candidate, and the longer Aoun remains tied to groups like Hezbollah, the faster many Christians are going to forget about his past accomplishments.