"Voters Head to Polls in Lebanon
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009 9:26 AM
BIKFAYA, Lebanon, June 7 -- Lebanon's Metn district has formed the base for many a Christian political dynasty, a mountainous region north of Beirut where members of the Maronite, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian sects compete for the spoils of office.
But as voters lined up in hillside schools and church buildings for a parliamentary election on Sunday, the main issue was less about electing their own and more about how the choices made in Christian villages will influence the fortunes of the Islamist Hezbollah party, the Shiite group whose base is far to the south. In a twist of Lebanon's sectarian politics, a split among Christian candidates into pro- and anti-Hezbollah slates has turned the campaign into a broad referendum about whether the Islamist party should have a more influential role in the country's future.
That, in turn, has prompted close interest in Washington, which considers the Iranian-backed Hezbollah a terrorist organization, antagonistic towards Israel and responsible in its early years for attacks on U.S. facilities in the country. As the Obama administration tries to push a new Middle East peace initiative, the vote in Lebanon will determine whether the country's government continues its current pro-western stance, or emphasizes its independence from Washington and its animosity towards Israel.
"This is our first election that is not just about a family or a name," said lawyer Raif Akl, referring to the heavy influence of family ties on political loyalties in the country. "It's about a political future."
Akl was helping staff the Bikfaya campaign office of Sami Gemayel, scion of one of Lebanon's main Christian political families and a backer of the so-called March 14 slate of candidates who want to curb Hezbollah's influence and maintain closer ties with Washington. The group includes the main Sunni Muslim parties, led by the son of assassinated prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, and several smaller Christian parties. They form the current majority in the Lebanese parliament.
They are opposed by a slate that includes the Shiite Hezbollah, the Shiite Amal party, and backers of influential Maronite leader Michel Aoun, the former general whose Free Patriotic Movement has fielded candidates for the seats set aside for Christians. Aoun, exiled in France until 2005 because of a clash with neighboring Syria, formed an alliance with Hezbollah upon his return that supporters characterize as a bid to align the Christian community with what is arguably the country's most powerful single faction.
"Hezbollah is a point of strength for Lebanon," said Edward Baklini, an engineer who was campaigning for the Aoun slate in nearby Dhour Choueir. The Aoun-Hezbollah alliance "is a building block" in cementing ties among Christians, historically powerful but dwindling, with the fast-growing and increasingly influential Shiite population, he said.
The contests for many of the 128 parliamentary seats to be filled on Sunday are not considered competitive. Lebanese political analysts say the outcome in a handful of mostly Christian districts, accounting for fewer than two dozen seats, will determine whether either faction wins enough of a majority to claim a mandate.
With 8 Christian seats, the Metn is a key battleground. The streets of towns like Bikfaya and Dhour Choueir were ablaze Sunday with competing flags and the din of car horns being used for semaphore: three long beeps for "ge-ne-ral," the battle cry of Aoun's faithful.
Lebanon's parliament is organized along confessional lines, with 64 Muslim seats and 64 Christian seats, apportioned among 18 different sects.
Sunday's vote follows a wrenching few years that included a wave of assassinations against politicians opposed to Syria's influence over the country, including Hariri; a 2006 war with Israel that has divided Lebanese between those who feel Hezbollah's extensive militia provoked the conflict and those who credit it with dealing Israel a blow; and Hezbollah's armed takeover of downtown Beirut in a demand for more political power.
All of that has condensed Lebanon's usually multi-faceted and fractious politics into the two competing slates. The battle has prompted thousands of ex-patriate Lebanese to come home to vote -- the rules require voters to cast ballots in person -- and led to long lines outside of polling places in what authorities expected would be a record turnout.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. under tight security and a broad set of rules meant to limit the potential for violence or electoral abuses. Restaurants and clubs were closed early on Saturday night; motorcycles were banned from the streets on the theory that it would discourage random violence by anyone trying to take advantage of a quick means of escape. Army and police began deploying a day in advance.
Thousands of election observers from groups like the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections were stationed to monitor polling places, with a real time text messaging system set up to report possible problems directly to a public Web site."