x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

100,000 Lebanese vote with their feet

Municipal elections rely on the consensus of residents and local power brokers and could affect implementation of secular governance.

BEIRUT // More than 100,000 Lebanese Christians returned to their home villages in the Mount Lebanon district yesterday to vote in the first of four rounds of municipal elections that have featured an uncharacteristic consensus between rivals and an overall sense of calm.

At stake in the voting, which will take place in rotating sections of Lebanon each Sunday this month, is control of municipal councils and the sorts of local posts that manage daily life. Such seats have a far greater impact on communities than many ministerial positions. The positions are held for six-year terms. But unlike last year's intense jockeying by the majority and opposition that included loud arguments on national issues such as the acceptability of Hizbollah's weapons, these elections are local in focus, and rely on the consensus of the residents and local power brokers to determine the outcome.

The Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, said that success at the polls this month could pave the way for the implementation of a series of long-demanded reforms, such as secular governance and anti-corruption measures. "Reform comes gradually. We made everything possible to hold organised elections," Mr Suleiman said after he voted in his home village of Amchit. As soon as the new local leaders are in office, and along with the new parliament, "there is now more possibility to make reforms", he said. "I wanted the elections to be held based on reforms. However, the first reform is rotation of power."

The Mount Lebanon elections are expected to be the most tightly contested races with the majority of the voters being from the divided Christian community, which tends to have more political diversity than other religious groups in Lebanon. Although Lebanon's security situation has greatly stabilised in the two years since Hizbollah took over West Beirut in a politically driven sectarian clash with Sunni supporters of the prime minister, Saad Hariri, the country remains fragile.

To preempt potential unrest, the interior minister, Ziad Baroud, determined that the country should be divided into four regions and voting would take place over four weeks to allow more than 20,000 security officials, police and military personnel to be on hand in case of political or sectarian violence. Mr Baroud reported no major incidents in the Mount Lebanon polling, which can be the trickiest because of the close proximity between bitter rivals among the Christian parties.

"We haven't been notified about any disorders yet because the elections are fully controlled at the security level," Mr Baroud said at a televised press conference. The performance of the security services yesterday earned Mr Baroud, who is a rising star in Lebanese politics for his quiet, technocratic demeanor, praise from the president. The positive feelings extended to the candidates in a rare moment for Lebanon, which has seen its share of chaotic elections.

"It's been a very democratic atmosphere indeed," said Ziyad Hawat, 35, a marketing executive running for a seat on the Jbail municipality for the first time. "The voting operation is taking place in a very good way and people are often voting for our list, but tomorrow the losers will be shaking the hands of the winners." Nayeff al Banna, 45, a real estate developer also running for office for the first time, offered the same optimistic view.

"Many [candidates] want to run in these elections because some are seeking a position or more money, others are seeking to rebuild the village," he said of his hometown of Sharon. "I'm running this election because I like my village. I'm working for the sake of the village and I have good experience in construction, while others don't enjoy such experience. However, the security situation is good, there are police and Lebanese army forces in larger numbers than residents, they're watching the electoral operation in a good way."

Even the opposition leader Michel Aoun, of the Free Patriotic Movement, who normally finds a reason to complain in almost any situation, only made passing references to his political enemies, while mostly complimenting the races. The environment, Mr Aoun said, was "calm and reassuring" although he did appear to accuse his enemies of vote buying, without evidence. mprothero@thenational.ae