Christian Boycott Darkens First Election in 20 Years

THE election official sitting behind a trestle table, with a ballot box at one end of it, yawned as a Lebanese Army soldier sitting near the table stirred sugar into a small cup of Arabic coffee, his automatic rifle laid across his lap.

This was the scene in the gendarmerie at Byblos, converted for the day into a polling station. Five hours after the official start of voting Aug. 30, only one person had come to cast a vote.

Maronite Christians in this ancient and picturesque seaport north of Beirut had fallen into line with tens of thousands of people within their community in boycotting the first general elections in Lebanon in 20 years.

Christians' overwhelming support of the boycott and allegations of widespread fraud and voter intimidation have cast serious doubts on the credibility of the outcome of the parliamentary elections. The developments have also aggravated an already severe political crisis in Lebanon.

The three-phase vote began with the north and east of the country going to the polls Aug. 23. Residents of Beirut and the surrounding Christian and Druze areas - those not boycotting the elections - voted Aug. 30, and people living in the south get their turn at the polls Sept. 6.

Maronite leaders had demanded the postponement of the elections until after the planned withdrawal of Syrian troops from Beirut and the surrounding area later this month.

Christians have accused Syria of trying to ensure the success at the polls of pro-Damascus candidates.

"It's a joke," Byblos businessman Riyad Merhi said as he loitered with others outside the polling station, watching the bored officials inside. "Only candidates whom Syria wants will get into parliament, so there is no point in voting."

The Maronite community boycotted the vote in response to calls made by both political and church leaders. When it was clear that protracted talks between Maronite representatives and the Syrian-backed government in Beirut were not going to secure a delay in the polling, two Christian Cabinet ministers resigned.

One was Foreign Minister Faris Bouez, the son-in-law of President Elias Hrawi. He described the elections as "a heresy and a masquerade," warning that the outcome could be a renewed outbreak of civil warfare.

The Maronite patriarch, Nasrullah Sfeir, called the elections a sham, and predicted that the new parliament would not last long.

"This is not a fair election because of the Syrian occupation," said a young priest at the 12th century Church of St. John the Baptist in Byblos. "There are no troops here in the town, but we all know that their secret police are all around."

Once mass was over, Christians in Byblos and other areas went home. Most did not emerge again for the rest of the day. Driving through the streets of East Beirut was like passing through a city under curfew.

By contrast, voting was brisk in the predominantly Muslim western half of the city. Cars covered with election slogans clogged the streets.

In the slum neighborhoods in Beirut's southern suburbs, where Shiite Muslims are in the majority, lines formed outside polling stations. The pro-Iranian Islamic fundamentalist organization Hizbullah had redoubled its efforts to win votes following its sweeping successes in the previous week's polling in Baalbeck in the Bekaa Valley.

While the full results of the elections will not be known for several days, it is already clear that Hizbullah will be a force to be reckoned with after its first excursion into democratic politics - a fact which is causing concern among Lebanese Muslims and Christians alike.

But many people in Lebanon are less worried about individual results than about the impact of the crisis on efforts to heal the wounds of the civil war. The government insisted that to have postponed polling would have jeopardized the package of political reforms agreed on by the warring parties at Taif in Saudi Arabia in 1989.

Christian opponents of the government, on the other hand, believe that the bitterness engendered by the polling has in itself severely damaged the process of reconciliation.

Emile Khoury, a columnist in the respected Beirut newspaper Al-Nahar, wrote of the Lebanese facing two bad choices: They either must uphold the results of "a bogus election" or face chaos.

He went on to quote a former president of Lebanon who once said that the country "has a tendency to move from a bad situation to an even worse one."

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