x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Christians could be kingmakers

With the Muslim vote largely predictable in Lebanon's elections, most of the attention is focusing on the Christian vote.

A woman holds an Armenian flag at a political rally in Beirut. Christian Armenian voters may decide who wins Sunday's elections.
A woman holds an Armenian flag at a political rally in Beirut. Christian Armenian voters may decide who wins Sunday's elections.

BEIRUT // While elections might be considered a time of frenzy in Lebanon, it is relatively subdued this year with the Muslim vote largely predictable and most of the attention focused on the Christian vote. "We know it will be Future Movement for the Sunni seats and Hizbollah for the Shiite seats, so why should I even bother going and voting when I know the one I support will win regardless of my vote," said Haytham Khouja, 25, who is planning to vote in Mazraa in Beirut 3 district where Saad Hariri, the Future Movement's leader, is running as a candidate.

Five of Mr Khouja's friends, all supporters of Future Movement, expressed the same sentiments, saying they are "relaxed" about these elections compared with the previous one. "It was the first elections for me without Syria's interference, so I felt my vote could make a difference and it did," said Mr Khouja, referring to the 2005 parliamentary elections following the withdrawal of Syrian troops. So while the Lebanese streets may be packed again with political posters, experts agree something is absent in the air, a kind of a missing "provocation".

"There is a loss of interest in the elections in many parts of Lebanon, particularly the areas controlled by Hizbollah or Hariri as it is known who will win," said Sami Haddad, a political analyst who has been monitoring Lebanese elections for the past 10 years. Mr Haddad lists the lack of the "Syrian element" as one of the main reasons for the "subdued" feel about this election. "There is a sort of a peace made with Syria where it does not interfere with Lebanese politics like before. So, with the outside enemy provocation removed, some of the heat from the election is lost," he said. "This election is more of an internal battle and it is mainly between the Christians."

"About 100 of the 128 parliamentary seats have been already been 'decided' by the major political parties, with the last 20 or so causing the greatest anxiety among the opposing forces," Mr Haddad said. Other changes that may have had an impact on these elections, explained Mr Haddad, is the fact that every political party now has its own TV station, the election process has been made simpler and is more organised and that there is great trust and expectation put on the president of Lebanon, Michel Suleiman, who is widely considered neutral and will be forming the government after the election.

"This election's main slogan is about not letting the other group win," he said. For Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) supporter Elias Khoury, this election is exactly about not letting "the others" win and he considers this election far more important than the last one. "I am excited and worried at the same time, for people underestimate just how badly things can go when there are divisions among the Christians," said Mr Khoury, 23, who will be voting in Jbeil for Michel Aoun, the leader of FPM.

"I like his ideas as he is the only one talking about cracking down on corruption, while the other Christian leaders take orders from Hariri," Mr Khoury said. His partner in business, Jad, who is also voting in Jbeil but for the Lebanese Forces (LF) headed by Samir Geagea, one of Mr Aoun's greatest opponents, said he will be going in a separate car to elect his candidate. "After the elections Elias and I will be sharing a car ride. For now we have to go separate ways and elect who we believe in," said Jad, who did not want to give his surname. "Election is election and business is business."

With talks of the biggest turnout to be among the Christians, the Armenian vote is also closely watched as their large numbers - there are 12,000 voters in the district of Metn alone - can have a significant influence on who wins. "It is not clear how the Armenians will vote," said Jihad al Murr, who runs the Al Murr TV station and whose father ran in the last elections. He is also the nephew of the MP Michel al Murr, who helped Mr Aoun win seats in Metn in the last election, but is now supporting the March 14 coalition.

"How the Christians will vote will determine how the country will be run in the next four years," said Mr al Murr. "People who never voted before are voting now for the first time," he said. "Every vote now matters." The often unnoticed minorities in the country, such as the Druze, are also putting in an extra effort this time. "I was told that my vote is crucial by my party and so that is why I decided I had to come," said Faten Baz, 25, who along with her husband had their tickets bought for them by their party so that they could fly in from Saudi Arabia and vote in Western Beqaa for Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party candidate.

Before her marriage Mrs Baz would vote in Aley, a Jumblatt stronghold; after her marriage her voting card switched to Western Beqaa, an area where her vote matters, she said. "While I don't agree with all the policies of the party, I want to vote as I don't want the other party to win," she added. @Email:rghazal@thenational.ae