BEIRUT // In Beirut's Rafik al Hariri international airport, an ululation goes up. Crowds clutching balloons and cellophane-wrapped flowers are packed four or five deep at the arrivals gate, waiting for relatives to emerge. Summer is always a busy time at the airport, but the past week has seen exceptional levels of incoming Lebanese - more than 19,000 in two days alone, according to the national press agency.
"We have double the amount of bookings compared to this time last year," said Ani Nahabedian from Air Canada. The reason is tomorrow's elections. Postal voting is not allowed in Lebanon and its 14 million-strong diaspora (from a country of only four million) are returning in droves to vote. "I come back every time there is an election, it's like eating or drinking," said Ali Fawwaz, 52, a car trader, who has flown in from Benin, in West Africa. "My flight was full of Lebanese."
Combining elections with a summer holiday is something of a tradition for Lebanese living abroad. One man returning from Paris referred to it as "doing a vote and vacation". But this year's elections seem to have drawn the diaspora in unprecedented numbers. "This is the first time I feel it makes a difference," said Jay Tarabay, fresh off a flight from Boston. "The Doha election reform made my district smaller, so I feel it makes a difference now."
Mr Tarabay supports Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, the leading opposition party, but this is the first time in 23 years of living in the US that he has come back to vote in an election. Similarly, Souad Sweid, a casually-dressed woman with sun bleached-blonde hair who has been living in Sydney for the past 19 years, was returning to the conservative northern city of Tripoli, where she planned to support the main government party, in her first vote since emigrating. "These elections are important, they are going to have a big effect on the country," her daughter, Sarah, explains in a broad Australian accent.
The incentive for the returning diaspora is not necessarily unmitigated patriotism. Lebanon's wealthy political class had been known to fly some people to vote, but this year, with the battle between the March 8 opposition and the March 14 government coalitions so closely fought, parties are even said to have chartered flights. "The Free Patriotic Movement delegation in Benin knows everyone who is with them, and who isn't, and they paid for my ticket," said Mr Fawwaz. "It cost $1,000 [Dh3,600]."
Samira, 28, who works in a hair salon in Kuwait, said her ticket home was also paid by a political party. "I just got my job last month, but I already missed my family and friends a lot. So, 10 days ago I got this phone call telling me they will pay my ticket if I come and vote. I said 'Yes, why not?' I'm happy I got to come and see my family and friends and spend some time with them. It's summer in Beirut, so I will go to the beach as well."
But, she said solemnly, "I will do the voting process as I promised, since they paid for my ticket." According to Pierre Acchar, the president of the Lebanon Hotels Association, parties have been block-booking rooms in key districts to entice people back. Although most people flying in from abroad stay with their families, Mr Acchar expected "good business" for the hotel industry this weekend. Marwan, 37, and his friend Chehir, stepped bleary-eyed off a 10-hour flight from Mali, where they have been living for 13 years. They headed straight for Metn, one of the all-important swing districts which could decide the election. "About 80 of us came over from Mali," said Marwan. "I am going to see friends I haven't seen in a while, who are coming back from Australia and Qatar."
"We are here to vote for change," Chehir interrupted. "No peace in Lebanon without (Hizbollah leader) Hassan Nasrallah and Michel Aoun." In another part of the arrivals hall, three formidable-looking men from the Bekaa valley, who have been living in Venezuela for the past 20 years, are back to vote for the opposite side. "We are with the government. We don't like Syria and Iran, and it is important to vote because our families are here," said Ali Majzoub.
The diaspora have more than an emotional investment in what happens in Lebanon. An estimated $5 billion flows in to the country every year from Lebanese abroad and deposits have increased since the start of the financial crisis. "I want everything quiet," said Narme Ghousson, who has also come back from Australia partly to vote. "I need my country, I need to make business here." Whatever their motivations, the stream of people exiting customs in to a phalanx of waiting relatives could play a decisive role in these elections.
"There's no reliable data on how many there are, and it depends on the districts they come back to," said Richard Chambers from the Lebanon branch of the Institute for Election Systems. "They could either make a huge impact, or none whatsoever. Unfortunately there's no way of telling." * The National