Key to Lebanon vote: Christians
The final result in Sunday's knife-edge parliamentary election was expected to hinge on which way the divided Christian community votes in a few important districts.
Dozens of Lebanese voters thronged a polling station in this Christian town Sunday morning, waiting patiently in the brilliant sunshine to participate in an election that will have ramifications far beyond Lebanon's small borders.Skip to next paragraph
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Hundreds of voters, many of them clad in brightly colored clothes of orange, blue, red, and yellow reflecting their political affiliations, descended on the polls as they opened at 7 a.m. local time.
The election pits the Western-backed March 14 bloc against an opposition coalition headed by the militant Shiite group, Hizbullah. At stake is whether Lebanon remains within the pro-Western orbit, or drifts closer to Syria and Iran. As voting began, it was impossible to predict the result of this knife-edge electoral race, with possibly as few as two or three seats in the 128-seat parliament deciding the outcome.
The final result is expected to hinge on which way the divided Christian community votes in a few key districts, including the Greek Catholic town of Zahle, tucked into a valley on the western flank of the Bekaa Valley. Many Christians, along with Sunnis and Druze, support the March 14 ruling coalition.
"I'm voting for March 14," says Paula Maalouf, displaying her purple-stained thumb indicating she had cast her vote. She listed the names of several prominent March 14 figures who were assassinated over the past four years, including Samir Qassir, a journalist who died in a car bomb blast in June 2005, and Gibran Tueni, the general manager of the leading An Nahar newspaper, who was killed by another car bomb in December 2005.
"They sacrificed their lives for our country and we should continue the road that they trod for their memory and for the sake of the Christians in the East," Ms. Maalouf says.
March 14 ruse to decrease opposition turnout?
As the voter lines grew and the sun became hotter, tempers began to flare. Elie Skaff, the minister of agriculture who heads an opposition list of candidates in Zahle, was jostled as he arrived to vote. His bodyguards pushed a way through the crowd and yelled at arriving voters to clear the narrow street so Mr. Skaff's motorcade could depart. Amid the chaos and tension, followers of Skaff tossed rose petals and handfuls of rice over his entourage in a traditional gesture of support.
Back in the cool of his air-conditioned office, Skaff grumbles that the voting process is disorganized, with some people having waited three hours in the sun to cast their ballot.
"I think this is done on purpose. They know that Zahle is crucial for the election. If they can disable the votes, it will be in their favor," he says, referring to the March 14-led government.
Allegations of irregularities