Q&A: Lebanon's parliamentary elections

Nicholas Blanford, the Monitor's correspondent in Beirut, answers questions about Lebanon's parliamentary elections, which take place in four regions over the next four consecutive Sundays beginning May 29 with Beirut. On June 5, it's southern Lebanon's turn. On June 12, the Bekaa valley and Mount Lebanon, and on the June 19, northern Lebanon will vote.

Q: Why are these particular elections so important?

A: It's the first vote free from Syrian interference since the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 conflict. Although Syrian troops first moved into Lebanon in 1976, Damascus only took full control of Lebanon at the end of the war in 1990. Elections were held in 1992, the first parliamentary polls in 20 years, and again in 1996 and 2000. However, each election was manipulated and districts were drawn to ensure that Syria's Lebanese allies would be returned to power.

Now that Syrian troops and intelligence agents have left Lebanon because of the protests and international pressure following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February, the results of these elections will help define the direction the country takes in the coming months.

Q: Do voters select specific candidates or parties?

A: Voters are offered lists of candidates to choose from. For example, a prominent politician may decide to head his own list. He then selects a number of candidates to fill the various sectarian slots apportioned by law for his electoral district, which is based on the demographics of the area. In other words, if Shiite Muslims form the majority in his electoral district, then Shiite candidates will form the majority on the list followed by the next largest religious sect and so on.

By polling day, there could be, say, three competing lists in one electoral district for voters to choose from. But a voter does not have to approve any one list in its entirety. The voter can mix and match lists, marking off names on one list and replacing them with others. So, in short, it's candidates that count, whether they are independents or members of a political party. For example, the militant Shiite Hizbullah organization, which has a highly organized and disciplined political machine, will field candidates on several different lists, wherever there are Shiite supporters to vote for them.

Q: Is the opposition likely to do well?

A: It certainly will. The leading opposition parties, Saad Hariri's Future Tide movement and Walid Jumblatt's Democratic Gathering, along with various smaller allies have much more support than their opponents, some of whom sided with Syria in the past and some of whom are former allies in the opposition.

Even Emile Lahoud Jr., Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's son, has withdrawn from the electoral race in protest, he claims, over the law under which the elections are going to be held. But the reality is that he and several other Syrian allies no longer stand a chance of being elected given the mood in the country. Mr. Hariri, who is the son of slain former Prime Minister Hariri, predicts that the opposition will win 80 to 90 of the 128 seats in parliament. Hariri is the likely choice for the country's next prime minister.

Q: How is the prime minister selected?

A: Following the elections, the government will officially resign but remain in office while consultations begin for the nomination of a new prime minister and the formation of a new government. The prime minister is selected by the president after he holds consultations with members of parliament and hears their views. The nominated prime minister then selects his cabinet in consultation with the president. Traditionally, Lebanon's president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim, and the parliamentary speaker a Shiite.

Q: Will the election be free and fair?

A: Probably more so than in the past. There is considerable international interest in these elections. Other than domestic electoral watchdogs, the United Nations and the European Union are sending observers to monitor the proceedings. The most important aspect of these elections is that they will be free from Syrian interference even if the law under which they are being held was engineered by the Syrians in the 2000 polls.

Q: What are the main campaign issues?

A: Good question. Although there is no shortage of important issues to discuss - the poor state of the economy, redefining relations with Syria, disarming Hizbullah, economic and political reform - few candidates actually discuss how they propose to tackle them.

During the run-up to elections, the media tends to dwell on the infighting between politicians rather than the debate of important issues. That has left many Lebanese feeling jaded by the whole process. After the tumultuous developments of the past few months, many Lebanese are complaining that nothing has really changed, with many of the same politicians continuing to squabble among each other over the distribution of power and influence.

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