Q & A: Lebanon's elections

Nicholas Blanford, the Monitor's Beirut correspondent, answers questions about Lebanon's parliamentary elections, which have been taking place in five regions over four consecutive Sundays, beginning with Beirut on May 29. Sunday, the southern district voted, to be followed by the Bekaa Valley and Mount Lebanon on June 12 and northern Lebanon on June 19.

Why are these elections so important?

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 took full control of Lebanon only at the end of the war in 1990. The first parliamentary polls in 20 years were held in 1992, 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 Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February, the results of these elections will help define the direction the country takes in coming months.

How do voters choose candidates?

Voters are offered lists of candidates, which include female contenders. 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.

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. But voters do not have to approve any one list in its entirety. They can mix and match lists, marking off names on one list and replacing them with others. So, it's candidates that count, whether they are independents or members of a party.

How will the opposition fare?

The leading opposition parties are the Future Tide movement, led by Rafik's son, Saad Hariri, and the Democratic Gathering, led by Walid Jumblatt. They, 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. In the first round of voting in Beirut on May 29, Hariri's list swept all 19 seats.

Several prominent pro-Syrian figures have withdrawn from the electoral race, including Emile Lahoud Jr., the son of the Lebanese president. He says he quit in protest of the law under which the elections are being held. But the reality is that he and several other Syrian allies are no longer likely to be elected.

Mr. Hariri predicts that the opposition will win 80 to 90 of the 128 seats in parliament. Hariri is a leading contender to be the country's next prime minister.

How is the prime minister chosen?

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 is a Shiite.

Will the election be fair?

Probably more so than in the past. There is considerable international interest in these elections. In addition to domestic electoral watchdogs, the United Nations and the European Union have sent observers to monitor the proceedings. They gave a clean endorsement to the first round of voting in Beirut.

The most important aspect of these elections is that they will be free from Syrian interference, even though the law under which they are being held was engineered by the Syrians in the 2000 polls.

What are the top issues?

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 present proposals for tackling them.

During the run-up to elections, the media have tended to dwell on the infighting between politicians rather than the debate over 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.

What are Hizbullah's prospects?

The southern round of voting took place Sunday. Of the five districts, this one is easiest to predict. Hizbullah, the Shiite militant organization, has teamed up with its traditional rival, the Amal Movement, to produce an unbeatable alliance that will capture the Shiite vote and almost certainly sweep all 23 available seats. The Lebanese media have nicknamed the alliance "the bulldozer."

About 650,000 people are eligible to vote in the southern round, although turnout is expected to hover between 30 and 40 percent. The low turnout is due to six candidates securing their seats unopposed, a partial Christian boycott in protest at the electoral law, and a certain amount of apathy at the foregone results.

Still, Hizbullah is fielding 14 candidates, hoping to raise the number of its lawmakers from nine.

Hizbullah is under stiff international pressure to disband its military wing. And its disarmament will be one of the most pressing political issues for the next government. Hizbullah's television station, Al Manar, has said that the elections will serve as a referendum on the party's political positions.

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