x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Minister gets credit for peaceful Lebanese elections

The Lebanese give a thumbs up to Ziad Baroud, the interior minister, for the efficient handling of the electoral process.

BEIRUT // Despite all the rallies, posters and campaign intrigue in the lead up to last Sunday's critical parliamentary elections, for the most part, the Lebanese have little love or trust for their elected officials. In the words of one independent voter, Sunday's polling was "a choice between Aids and cancer".

But despite all the cynicism and political bad blood between rival camps in the campaign, many Lebanese seem to agree that the man who ran the election process, the interior minister, Ziad Baroud, can be trusted, an accomplishment in a country that rarely finds consensus on its leaders. Even as it became clear that the western-back government coalition would hold on to power despite a strong challenge by the Shiite militant group Hizbollah, the credibility of the polling became the most important issue.

But on Monday evening, before detailing a litany of complaints about his opponents, the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a firm endorsement of the election process managed by Mr Baroud. "I seize the moment to thank the ministries and the public administrations, the Lebanese army and the security forces, for the handling of the electoral process and for preserving security and stability," Mr Nasrallah said.

"These administrations were in front of a major challenge of holding general elections on a single day. "Despite some flaws, the challenge was faced with responsibility. I congratulate the winners who have to know that they have just taken the responsibility of the people. We accept the announced results by the interior minister." Named interior minister, Mr Baroud entered Lebanese politics two years ago not as an insider, but as an idealistic civil society lawyer with a sterling reputation for political neutrality.

In more than a dozen interviews, not a single person in Lebanon's often vicious political scene had even a hint of criticism of his performance. "Ziad's reputation was built on his openness to all parties and all media," said Omar Nashabe, a close friend and adviser to the minister on human rights and prisons. "He published articles in many different papers [reflecting all political camps] and appeared on both pro-government and pro-opposition television stations and in newspapers. He had no plan to reach power, he only was interested in protecting basic human rights. But the chaos surrounding Lebanon reached its climax as he developed more of a reputation for fairness, so the president selected him to help the country at this time."

What is more, Mr Baroud has 10,700-plus fans on Facebook, an achievement for anyone let alone a Lebanese politician. As interior minister, Mr Baroud had the unenviable task of managing Lebanon's notoriously crooked electoral system, while also maintaining security and safety at the polling stations as the country voted nationwide on a single day, unlike in 2005 when elections were held over the course of four weeks to enable the security forces to protect voters.

With no such help this time around, many Lebanese feared that violence could mar the voting, that corruption would prevent the results from being seen as legitimate and that parties would engage in widespread vote-buying and rigging. But despite reports throughout the country of some illegal activity, Mr Baroud's calm demeanour and steady adherence to the established rules gave voters tremendous confidence, making him perhaps more popular than any of the candidates on the ballot.

"He is a hero, and I never thought we would ever have such a minister," said Mariam Shatila, 28, a university student. "I wish he had run in the elections, I would have voted for him. I did not vote this time because after seeing Ziad's performance, none of the candidates can convince me, none of them is even close to the person Baroud is." And with widespread fears of election violence, the general sense of competence and security impressed even the most nationalist of voters.

"I'm so impressed of the level of security the country was under, and this time we did not need the Syrians to keep us from killing each other," said Sami Yaakoub, 33, a business manager. Mr Nashabe said this popularity stemmed from the clear sense that Mr Baroud works hard to stay out of the morass of Lebanese political patronage, as he refuses to even run for parliament for fear of being labelled as a supporter of one side or another.

"Lebanon cannot be ruled by one group, this he knows," Mr Nashabe said. "He prefers to look at it like this: The best way to work to improve the human rights conditions in Lebanon is by not siding with one grouping in this tense atmosphere. As a Christian, he has to deal with some of the biggest splits in Lebanese politics but he has refused to get involved in these matters as well." Mr Baroud refused an interview for this story, as he has refused others that did not deal directly with the election process and security. It is unclear if he will continue in his role as a minister, or will return to his law practice in the areas of human rights and civil society institutions.