x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Decision time arrives for Lebanon

Voters to choose between current pro-western government of Sunni, Druze and some Christians, or coalition of Shiite and Christian parties led by Hizbollah.

Members of a special commando unit of the Lebanese army pass in front of a poster of the slain former  prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Members of a special commando unit of the Lebanese army pass in front of a poster of the slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

ZAHLE, LEBANON // Despite claims by top officials that today's bitterly contested parliamentary elections would be accompanied by unprecedented security measures, the streets and villages in Lebanon's most competitive districts were eerily quiet and overtly free of security forces yesterday. Lebanon's voters will decide whether to retain the current majority composed of a pro-western government of Sunni, Druze and some Christians, or turn power over to a coalition of Shiite and Christian parties led by the militant group Hizbollah.

In the last day of campaigning, both sides pushed the rhetoric, with the government camp, known as "March 14", accusing the opposition of pursuing policies that would isolate Lebanon from the West, while reinforcing its ties to outcast nations such as Syria and Iran. The opposition reinforced its complaints about the majority's corruption and unwillingness to defend the nation from Israeli aggression.

In a series of rallies before campaigning ended late Friday night, both sides targeted the voters of the key Christian town of Zahle. With the Sunni and Shiite political machines likely to deliver their voters for the government and opposition respectively, the Christian districts of eastern Lebanon and the mountain areas appear to be the key. Political polling has indicated that the opposition has a strong chance of winning the elections but Lebanon traditionally has a long history of inaccurate public opinion surveys. Part of the issue stems from the country's inability to hold a formal census.

A politically contentious issue, a census would almost certainly show that Christians receive a much higher proportion of seats than their population in relation to the Muslim community. So with few non-partisan political polling operations and a murky overview of the electoral population, most Lebanese are waiting for the final results before predicting any outcome. "Hizbollah created the Shebaa Farms issue to justify the presence of its weapons," Sami Gemayel, a March 14 candidate, told supporters, referring to a land dispute with Israel. "We do not want arms in the hands of the Sunnis, the Shiite or the Christians. The only weapons that protect us are those of the Lebanese Armed Forces."

In response, Michel Aoun, a retired general aligned with the opposition, told his supporters in Zahle that the arguments against Hizbollah's weapons are baseless attempts to inflame sectarian divisions. "They are trying to scare you of Hizbollah's weapons. These weapons are not to impose the Welayat al-Faqih rule in Lebanon," he said, referring to the Shiite notion of government by religious leaders.

Many Lebanese Christians distrust Hizbollah's military power for fears it could lead to an Islamic state, a charge Hizbollah and its allies strongly dispute. "Whoever wins Zahle will win the election," Abdo Saad, a Beirut pollster, said. "Zahle is the great decider." In Zahle, famed for its strong mix of confessions with significant Christian, Shiite and Sunni representation, the town was quiet and almost completely free of traffic due to fears that today's polls could turn violent in the critical areas.

"It's quiet here right now, but there's a lot of tension among people," said Christina Saad, a local resident. "What will happen this year, in my opinion, it will be just like last year. There will be clashes between people." Voters in Zahle also indicated that members of the Lebanese Forces, one of the key Christian parties supporting March 14, were likely to support the opposition in Zahle because of the popularity of the local candidate, Elie Skaff.

"The Lebanese Forces will vote for him if they feel like March 14 might lose because he's the traditional leader. He helps people and people like him too much. Mr Skaff is spending the most money, paying $300 [Dh1,100] per vote. Other candidates are only paying $100 to $200 per vote." But despite the claims by the interior minister, Ziad Baroud, that 56,000 security forces would be strongly deployed throughout the country today, there were few police or army to be seen in critical voting districts with a high probability of violence tomorrow.

Military and police officials have privately complained that they lack the manpower to properly secure the elections and claim to have been overruled by the cabinet on a proposal to spread the voting over four weeks, as was done in 2005. Security measures forced the candidates to suspend campaigning at 9pm on Friday, followed by a decision to shut many bars, restaurants and nightclubs last night at midnight.

Lorries have been banned throughout Lebanon since Friday evening and heavy traffic will not be allowed until tomorrow morning. Scooters and motorcycles will be prohibited from driving on election day itself. With 3.2 million voters eligible to participate in a country of just under four million people, much of the outcome will hinge on the voting by Lebanon's huge diaspora community. At last 19,000 people arrived to vote in the election in the past two days alone, according to Beirut International Airport, and tens of thousands more have already arrived.

With so many voters arriving from outside Lebanon and the country's colourful history of both fake identification cards and political cheating, Mr Baroud has spent the last 24-hours reassuring the country that the wide spread rumours of fraud would not affect the outcome. "Using forged Ids is a criminal act with a prison penalty," Mr Baroud told a press conference. He said the interior ministry had met with polling station workers and explained the many details on identity cards, which would show if a document was a fake.

"The cedar on the top of the ID card is a hologram, which will change colour when turned or put to the light. This cannot be forged through Photoshop or any other programme. It is the best way to discover fake IDs," he told reporters. @Email:mprothero@thenational.ae