Lebanon election promises sea change

Free of the shackles of its powerful neighbour Syria, Lebanon votes on Sunday in what is being hailed as the first truly free elections in three decades - with the anti-Damascus opposition set to win.

    The pro-Syrian parties have practically thrown in the towel

    Many of Syria's once-powerful allies have already withdrawn and key opposition figures including veteran Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Saad al-Hariri, son of slain ex-prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, are assured of victory.

    The real litmus test for the opposition, which is offering Lebanon's more than two million voters no real manifesto, will be the turnout - a vital indicator of any new government's legitimacy.

    The four-round election, which begins on 29 May in Beirut to be followed by three more rounds on consecutive Sundays, is the first to take place under international supervision.

    Nine candidates on Saad al-Hariri's list have already been elected without a single vote being cast, and another 10 are almost assured of victory.

    Political upheaval

    Huge portraits of Rafiq al-Hariri, whose killing in a massive bomb blast triggered a political upheaval in Lebanon and ultimately forced Syria's exit last month, are posted all over Beirut along with those of Saad.

    Little space is left for candidates competing against the Hariri
    list.

    Hizb Allah chief Hassan Nasrallah
    remains a powerful political figure

    Saad called on "those who loved Rafiq Hariri and believed in his economic and political vision to vote en masse ... so that the truth will come out" about the murder.

    "We are a peaceful people. That is why I call on you to respond to the killers (of al-Hariri) by casting your votes so that each one hits them in the heart," he has repeated throughout the campaign.

    In the Christian district of Ashrafiya, al-Hariri's portraits are side by side with those of Solange Gemayel, widow of slain former Christian president Bashir Gemayel, who has won uncontested Beirut's sole Maronite seat.

    A few posters warn however that "the electoral law in force will not guarantee Christian representation", echoing the words of Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the head of the powerful Maronite church.

    Under siege

    Lebanon's large Christian minority feel that the Syrian-tailored law, used in the last 2000 polls, bolsters Muslim representation at their expense.

    In the Shia heartland of southern Lebanon, where the second stage of the polls takes place on 5 June, election is weak amid a lack of candidates willing to compete against the joint Amal-Hizb Allah list.

    "We are a peaceful people. That is why I call on you to respond to the killers (of al-Hariri) by casting your votes so that each one hits them in the heart"

    Saad al-Hariri,
    Opposition figure and son of late prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri

    The two pro-Syrian Shia movements expect their 23 candidates to sweep the polls in the region. The same is the case in Shia-dominated areas of the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon.

    But in Mount Lebanon, a region southeast of Beirut split into Christian, Druze and Shia areas, and in the Christian northern regions of Kesrwan, Matn and Jubail, campaigning is tough because of the large number of candidates.

    The opposition has failed to make an alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement of General Michel Aoun, who led a disputed military government in the last days of the 1975-1990 civil war and was forced into exile by the Syrians.

    Terms of surrender

    A leading Christian figure who made a triumphant homecoming earlier this month, Aoun has criticised opposition members in the Muslim camp for bowing to the government's terms for the elections.

    Christian leader Michel Aoun has
    been ignored by the opposition

    The opposition could also emerge victorious in Tripoli, a Sunni stronghold in northern Lebanon, after former pro-Syrian prime minister Omar Karameh announced he would not be standing for reelection in his home city.

    But a low turnout could still play into the hands of pro-Syrian candidates in Tripoli, where the Lebanese Islamist movement Jamaa Islamiya, an electoral force in the city, has announced it will boycott the polls.

    Lebanon has about three million voters, 59% Muslim and 41% Christian, who will be asked to elect a 128-seat parliament equally divided between the two communities.

    SOURCE: AFP


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