x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Festive atmosphere on polling day

Crowds start out early on Mount Lebanon, with supporters waving the colourful flags of their chosen parties as they go to vote.

Supporters of the Lebanese Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun wave their party flags in Kahaleh village in Mount Lebanon yesterday.
Supporters of the Lebanese Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun wave their party flags in Kahaleh village in Mount Lebanon yesterday.

Al-METN, LEBANON // Sunday in Mount Lebanon started early for many. Voters had begun gathering around the polling areas as early as 7.30am, in order to beat the queues and stain their thumbs with the mandatory blue ink.

The residents of the town of Bikfaya, home to the Gemayel family and the Phalange Party, had already begun parading in the streets with their white and green flags on Saturday night.

Yesterday morning saw the same supporters out in full force, with dozens of children setting up make-shift marquees and handing out March 14 lists to those going to the local school to cast their votes.

Music supporting the Phalange Party blared from loudspeakers on top of 4x4s parading through the streets, with passengers hanging out of the windows and sunroofs, frantically waving flags emblazoned with the green cedar tree - the Phalange Party's symbol.

"Everything will be fine," said Mukhtar Saade, one of the mayors of the town, with a confident smile. "The Lebanese people are proper people.

"The people from this area are sensible, and these elections have been much more calm than those in previous years."

Along with the vast majority of residents from Bikfaya, Mr Saade voted for the pro-government March 14 camp. "If Hizbollah wins, there will be political problems in the long term. We will lose investments from the Gulf and from Europe, and Lebanon doesn't need this," he said.

Yet as one moved further up the mountain, support for the opposition March 8 party became more apparent. Nestled at the top of the mountain above Bikfaya rests the large town of Dhour Shweir, where two thirds of the residents are thought to be backing General Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement - the largest Christian party in the March 8 alliance.

Army soldiers had stood guarding the entrance to the town hall since the previous night, and large sections of the surrounding roads were closed off to prevent any potential clashes between opposing party members.

Bright orange paraphernalia adorned the buildings surrounding the town hall, and large clusters of youth dressed in orange T-shirts loitered around the main roundabout, keeping a close eye on those entering and exiting the voting area.

A few bright yellow flags were also spotted among the orange ones, clearly demonstrating their support for Hizbollah.

"We will definitely vote with Michel Aoun," said Joseph Tannouri, a resident of Zahle, who had come to observe the atmosphere in Dhour Shweir before returning home to cast his vote. "Michel Aoun has a personality, he has a positive mentality, and he has respect."

"We are with him even more because he is with Hizbollah," he added with a laugh. Confident that the opposition will win, he refused to accept the possibility of March 14 gaining seats in the Metn region.

"Impossible!" he declared, "We will take all seven seats. And if we don't win the general elections, I will leave."

Following the road down the mountain and into the small Christian village of Jouar, where approximately 400 eligible voters live, and that is split between the two opposing camps, residents gathered outside of their houses, sipping coffee and watching others walking to the Greek Catholic church, whose basement had turned into the village voting hall.

Houses en route to the church were decked out in opposing colours; some covered from the roof to the ground in orange, blaring out music supporting the March 8 opposition and Mr Aoun.

Their neighbours (and in most cases, their relatives), on the other hand, not wanting to be outdone by the show of opposition support, covered their cars and walls with massive posters and flags from the Lebanese Forces and the Phalange Party, and dressed their children in green and white, the colours represented by their respective parties.

As the day progressed, families and friends passed through the houses, comparing experiences and holding up their left thumbs to show that they had voted (each voter had to dip their thumb into a pot of ink after casting their vote).

"Did you vote? Who did you vote for?" could be heard through the halls. The responses tended to vary, depending on location and family, but they generally followed the lines of "I voted with the general, of course.

"I'm not voting for those liars and cheats," or, "No way would I vote with the opposition - I voted with the March 14 list. I don't want Iran and Hizbollah dictating the policies in my country."

Yet despite clear political divisions among family members, light-hearted banter dominated conversations; jokes concerning each side were often exchanged, mocking the candidates that have chosen to run.

As one March 14 supporter pointed out during lunch on a table predominantly occupied by fierce March 8 supporters: "At the end of the day, we all want the same thing; we all want a sovereign, independent, transparent Lebanon.

"The only difference between us is the path we choose to get there." nsamaha@thenational.ae