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.
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.
"We see elections as a way by which the views and convictions of the people can be expressed," explained the deputy leader of Hizbullah, Shaik Naim Qasem, in an interview. "Parliament is a forum through which we can put forward people's interests and demands, defend the resistance, and pass laws which help the deprived."
Government leaders say there is no reason not to hold the long-overdue elections now that the country is largely peaceful and the state has reasserted itself over the warring militias.
Mr. Jumblatt, the Druze leader, denies the elections are needed: "Let's be very frank - the Syrians want this election to try to give themselves a kind of credibility. We are not against the Syrians, but this is not the proper way to give them, or ourselves, credibility."
But Michel Samaha, minister of information in the Beirut government and himself a Maronite Christian, insists that the decision was Lebanese.
"Not only is it a Lebanese decision, it is a Lebanese need also," he said. "The current parliament was elected 20 years ago, and many things have changed since then. The new parliament will have new approaches and will be more representative of what is going on and of how people think in Lebanon today."
But opponents say the amended electoral law which the government pushed through parliament in preparation for the poll deviates from the 1989 Taif peace agreement for Lebanon in a way that will ensure continuing Syrian influence over the chamber.
"Taif has been turned over to those against whom Taif was devised, namely the Syrians," says Ghassan Tueni, a Greek Orthodox Christian who publishes Lebanon's leading newspaper, an-Nahar.
"Taif was a compact to help the Lebanese be liberated from a Syrian takeover. Ultimately Taif has been underwritten to the Syrians, and now they implement Taif they way they want to see it," he added in an interview.
Mr. Tueni and others fear that government-backed lists of candidates, with Syrian influence behind them, may bulldoze any opposition without resorting to overt interference at the polls. Opposing violence
The Christian opponents of the scheme say they will avoid violence and confrontation with government forces.
"I am not for violence or riots," says Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, the Christian militia which has become a political movement after being dissolved as a private army last year. "We are for political struggle all the way."
But others fear violence could erupt given the highly charged political climate, and economic and social unrest focused on a deeply unpopular government. On May 6, street riots, triggered by a collapse of the Lebanese pound, brought down the last government despite Syrian efforts to prop it up. The Lebanese pound's collapse also brought on a general strike yesterday.
Israel's ally in its self-proclaimed "security zone" along the south Lebanon border, Gen. Antoine Lahd, is reported to have threatened to disrupt polling throughout the south unless ballot boxes are placed inside the zone, which the Beirut government is refusing to do.