TRIPOLI, LEBANON // Voters endured long line-ups, crammed rooms and heavy traffic in what was considered one of the calmest elections yet in northern Lebanon, which featured a high turnout of female voters from all religious groups. "I am seeing a great turnout of women voters," Jimmy Carter, the former US president, said in an interview in a polling station in Jbeil, which he visited with election observers from the Carter Center.
"There is a great level of excitement and dedication to do these elections right," he said. Beginning in the early morning hours, polling stations were packed in such major northern cities as Tripoli, Batroun, Zgharta and Jbeil, with many voters, particularly women, admitting that they were voting for the first time. "I hope this inspires women to go further and actually participate in politics," Mr Carter said. "I really would like to see more women in Lebanese politics."
Tens of women were lined up outside the Jbeil Official Middle School by 7.30am, many having left their make-up behind to get to the polls as early as possible. "I just got up and didn't even bother brushing my hair as I wanted to be here as early as possible and vote before the crowds come," said Christelle Saliba, 23, who over-dipped her thumb and ended up with most of her hand stained with the purple dye.
"I was just so excited that I didn't notice I put my thumb in too deep," said Ms Saliba, who voted for the first time and for a slate of candidates of the Free Patriotic Movement. Lara Hawat voted in Jbeil, while her father, the president, Michel Suleiman, voted just a few blocks away in Amchit, where he called on "all citizens" to exercise their democratic right and vote. "Democracy is a blessing we have to preserve and it is a blessing that distinguishes Lebanon in the Middle East," he told reporters after voting.
The president also reiterated the importance of having a national unity government and to avoid provocation for the sake of a united Lebanon. Amchit and Jbeil saw some of the highest turnouts in the country, with media reports stating that more than 65 per cent of voters in the two towns came out. "Because the president of the country is from our area and he asked us to vote, we all came," said Raafat al Hayek, who came along with her sisters and their husbands to vote in Jbeil.
"There is just a great belief in this election because they are real and transparent," she said. The Lebanese interior minister, Ziad Baroud, validated the use of passports as ID to vote after about 600 voters complained they were forbidden from voting in Zgharta when they showed up to vote with just their passports. Voter turnouts were estimated by different media outlets at 50 per cent for Zgharta and Koura, while in Batroun, turnout reached 60 per cent, according to Mr Baroud.
"They need to take into account the seniors and the handicapped; they always seem to forget about us," said Fouad al Qarouni, 88, who uses a walking stick and had difficulty climbing the two floors to his voting station. "There is still a lot to be fixed in the elections, but at least now, we don't have to fear for our lives as we vote," he said. Mr al Qarouni said he had voted five times in his life.
In Bcharre, a Lebanese Forces stronghold, the group's leader, Samir Geagea, voted for the first time. He had spent 11 years in jail for crimes committed during the civil war in Lebanon, from 1975 to 1990, and was released as part of an amnesty bill after the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005. Turnout here was estimated at 40 per cent. The lowest reported turnout in the north was in its largest city, Tripoli, at 38 per cent. Here, the vote was viewed as not so much an election as a popularity contest between Najib Mikati, a businessman, and Mohammed al Safadi, a cabinet minister, both running independently but allied with March 14.
In his visit to Tripoli, Mr Baroud described the Tripoli elections as "quiet" and going smoothly. Just two hours before the closing of the polling stations, a man was injured in a dispute between former prime minister Omar Karameh supporters from the March 8 camp, and those of MP Mohammed Kabbarah with March 14, in Bab al-Tbbanah area of Tripoli. "I am never voting again; it was just too hectic," said Hind Kabbarah, who was voting for the second time in her life.
"It is only when I said I am not voting any more that they let me through the massive crowds of voters," said Ms Kabbarah, who voted for the March 14 candidates. In Akkar, with turnout rates estimated at 63 per cent, three individuals were arrested by the army for their involvement in skirmishes in Wadi Jamous of Akkar. A man was also arrested after being caught bribing voters before they head to polling stations in Al-Aabda area.