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Lebanon Groups Resist August Vote

By Jim MuirSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 30, 1992


THE Beirut government's decision to hold Lebanon's first parliamentary elections in 20 years has triggered an acute political crisis and opened new uncertainties for the war-shattered country.

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Christian leaders are almost unanimous in rejecting the elections, arguing that a free and fair poll is impossible while the country is largely controlled by the Syrian and Israeli armies.

Critics say the real decision was taken by the Syrian authorities, whose grip over the Beirut government is undeniable.

The Christian heartland east and north of Beirut was paralyzed last week by a peaceful one-day protest strike that was almost universally observed in those areas. Political observers say it indicated that the vast bulk of the Christians are likely to stay away from the polls unless there is a change in the situation.

But the government overrode Christian objections. The day after the strike it set dates for a three-stage vote in different parts of the country.

It announced that polling will be held Aug. 23 in the Syrian-controlled east and north of the country. A week later, people in Beirut and the adjacent mountains, areas largely under Lebanese Army control, will vote.

The final poll will take place Sept. 6 in the south, controlled variously by the Lebanese Army, United Nations peacekeepers, Islamic guerrillas and Israeli troops.

The Maronite Christian patriarch, Nasrullah Sfeir, who has emerged as one of the focal points of opposition, described the decision as "a basic challenge to one sector of the Lebanese."

Praising the protest strike in his sermon Sunday, he said it expressed "rejection of an election which cannot be fair as long as hundreds of thousands of Lebanese remain displaced, and which cannot be free while non-Lebanese armies remain in the country." Muslims uneasy

Criticism of the poll is by no means confined to the Christian camp. While Muslim leaders generally are going along with the decision, many have expressed unease, and some clearly believe it is a mistake.

"I think it is not the right moment for having elections," said Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in an interview. "The timing is bad. We have much more important issues to ... deal with: the economic situation, the government, and the Lebanese administration, which is in a total shambles and is totally corrupt."

"I would say that in the Muslim community, or in general in the Lebanese community, I don't see much enthusiasm toward these elections," added Tamam Salam, a Sunni Muslim personality who plans to stand for election on a nongovernment ticket.

"I'm worried that the turnout might be very poor, and that of course will reflect on the credibility of the deputies in the new parliament," he said. "I would not consider this a positive element in the reconstruction and reunification of Lebanon."

But support for the election has come from an unusual quarter. The radical, Iranian-backed Hizbullah (Party of God)declared that it would contest the poll for the 128-member parliament, whose seats will be split equally between Christians and Muslims.