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.
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
Michel Aoun, the main Christian opposition figure, also criticized the voting procedure when he cast his ballot in southern Beirut. He described it as "not worthy of voters," which suggests that the reported log-jams at the polling booths may be formally protested on Monday if the opposition narrowly loses to March 14.
Ziad Baroud, the interior minister, said that voting had begun briskly but dwindled later in the day, acknowledging the frustration of lengthy waits outside the polling centers.
In Bikfaya, in the mountainous Metn province in the Christian heartland north of Beirut, banners carrying the stylized cedar tree symbol of the Phalange Party were plastered to walls or draped from wires. Bikfaya is home to the Gemayel family, one of the most prominent Christian dynasties in Lebanon. Shaking hands with well-wishers outside the local polling center was Nadim Gemayel, a March 14 candidate in a Beirut ward and son of Bashir Gemayel, a former president-elect who was killed in a bomb explosion in 1982.
"The Nazis won power through legitimate elections," Gemayel says. "We are not going to give that legitimacy to Hizbullah because it will lead us into World War III."
It was an ironic metaphor to choose. Gemayel's grandfather, Pierre, founded the Phalange Party in Lebanon in 1936 having been inspired by the discipline and organization of the Nazis when attending the Berlin Olympics as captain of Lebanon's soccer team.
Troops out in force
Lebanese troops and police were deployed in large numbers to maintain order. Lebanon usually holds elections province by province over several consecutive weekends, but this year is the first the polls have been conducted in a single day.
A few minor clashes were reported, although by late afternoon none were serious. In Ashrafieh, a Christian neighbourhood in east Beirut, a small but angry crowd of opposition supporters faced-off against several Lebanese soldiers. An army officer barked an order and the troops suddenly fanned out around the crowd, raising and cocking their rifles.
"Why don't you fight the Israelis in the south instead of us," yelled a furious opposition supporter. Three armored personnel carriers with red-bereted troops clinging to the top clattered at speed down the street toward the melee. Outnumbered, the young men scowled at the soldiers and walked away.
Many analysts worry that more serious clashes could erupt on Monday when the final results are announced.