Lebanon: Civil War to Uncivil Vote

Syria's heavy hand may make latest election unfair, but it could help Mideast peace

Election posters are plastered three deep on every wall in Beirut, brightening military checkpoints and decorating the rubble-strewn ruins of buildings destroyed along the city's "Green Line" during 15 years of civil war.

Amid these obvious signs, Lebanon is holding its second parliamentary elections since fighting ended in 1990.

But beneath the democratic faade, there are growing complaints that this vote is the most corrupt and manipulated in Lebanon's history. Analysts say Syria, which has a strong hand in Lebanese politics, is trying to squash extremists to ensure two things: election of a moderate parliament that will answer to Syria; and that Lebanon will accept a possible future peace deal with Israel.

So far pro-government and other pro-Syria candidates have won by wide margins, against losses for vocal Christian opponents of Syria's influence and for Iran-backed Islamic candidates.

But the list of abuses is long, and reflects the geographic and religious divides in the country. It is further complicated by Syria's long-standing hegemony over the country, and the continuing presence of 35,000 Syrian soldiers.

Voting in Lebanon's five regions is taking place over five successive Sundays, the last coming this weekend. But a crucial test came during the first-round vote in August, when Christian opponents of Syrian influence were defeated.

'Managed democracy'

A new law redrew districts to ensure their defeat. And on voting day, fraud was rife: Opposition poll monitors were arrested by internal security police or kicked out of polling stations, voter lists disappeared, errors were found in identity cards, and intimidation amounted to, as one candidate said, "gangsterism."

"It's a joke. It's not at all a free and fair election by any stretch of the imagination," says Paul Salem, the Harvard-educated director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, the nation's only independent election monitoring group.

"The manipulations were so blatant. It was the worst Lebanon has seen," he says. "It was politicians using their power to remain in power."

In subsequent rounds, government opponents have been fewer, and fraud less obvious. In Beirut, billionaire Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri won a mandate for his dramatic plans - already well under way - to reconstruct the capital.

Syria's shadow looms

Still, few believe that Lebanon's future is in Lebanese hands. Mr. Hariri and other officials reportedly made regular visits to Damascus for final decisions about acceptable candidate lists.

"Syria wants the game to look democratic, without looking too Syrian," says one professional analyst who asked not to be named. "It is managed democracy."

"The Syrians were able to create a big problem inside the opposition, with different games," says Gebran Tueni, the publisher of An-Nahar newspaper who favored an election boycott. Besides, he says, "You can't talk about free elections, in a country with Syrian troops, Israeli occupation, and Iranian influence."

Israel maintains some 1,000 troops in in its self-declared "security zone" in the south, and Iran's influence is seen in weapons supplies for Hizbullah guerrillas who fight the Israeli Army and its proxies.

US keeps quiet to boost peace

Mr. Tueni says many have been disappointed by the lack of United States response to the flawed election, considering staunch American support of democracy elsewhere. Syrian manipulation has been ignored, he says, because the US is trying to persuade Syria to rejoin the Mideast peace process. The view here is that the US is willing to ignore Lebanese cries of foul play to serve that aim.

The quid pro quo that Syria provides, analysts believe, is that this election is paving the way for a future Mideast peace deal by cutting back the power of extremists of all stripes - especially Hizbullah.

Syria has assisted Hizbullah (Party of God) for years by facilitating weapons shipments from Iran to engage Israeli troops, activities the US says keep Syria on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But the Syrian message today appears different from 1992, when extremists were encouraged. Hizbullah then won eight seats in the 128-seat assembly, but this time has lost two seats and could be marginalized.

"Syria is backing moderates," says Edmond Saab, executive editor of An-Nahar. "Syria has put an end to Hizbullah dreams. It's a tactic for Syria to change the situation, so they can't be blamed [by the West] for protecting fundamentalists."

The conflict between Hariri, the prime minister, and Hizbullah went public this week, when Hariri reportedly told the London-based Al-Hayat paper: "We have nearly gotten rid of Christian fundamentalism, which retreated and only have Muslim fundamentalism ... to confront."

Hizbullah head Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah responded angrily at a rally: "For sure he means Hizbullah. Isn't this a declaration of war against a major struggling faction in Lebanon? A war in which the state and its organs, money and a huge election machine, and big political capability are being used?"

Despite predictions of a Hizbullah rout, in last Sunday's voting the group appeared to do better than expected, though returns hadn't been finalized. And senior Hizbullah officials say their battles with Israel increase their popular support, even if they are made weak in parliament. But such analysis underlines that Lebanon's elections are merely an exercise.

"Are we really having elections?" asks Farid el-Khazen, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "The main beneficiary is Syria. These are elections without choice."

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