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NOW

Lebanon votes

Independent candidates are challenging established political parties in the capital and Bekaa Valley.

A Lebanese woman after voting in Sunday

BEIRUT – Lebanese voters returned to the voting booths Sunday for the first time in six years for the first round of the municipal elections that saw independent lists challenge the hegemony of established parties.

 

Voter turnout was low in Sunday’s showcase race in Beirut where the Beirut Madinati (Beirut is My City) electoral list of civil society activists and technocratic candidates are contesting the 24-seat municipal council against a joint-list backed by a coalition of Lebanon’s major political parties, including the Future Movement, Progressive Socialist Party, Amal Movement and Lebanese Forces.

 

As the country awaited the results of the elections, Future Movement officials, including party leader Saad Hariri, cast an optimistic note. Enivronment Minister Mohammad Machnouk claimed that the Beiruti List backed by the Sunni-party had swept the vote in the capital.

 

Only slightly over 20% of the capital’s registered residents cast their ballots, according to the Interior Ministry overseeing the election process. Turnout was higher in the Bekaa Valley, where close to 50% of the residents voted.

 

Ballot counting lasted until the late hours of Sunday after polls closed at 7 p.m. amid allegations of vote fraud, including in Beirut. The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) announced in a press conference that it had prepared a report on voting irregularities, while the Beirut Madinati list warned that it had gathered reports of “blatant violations and electoral fraud.”

 

Earlier in the day, Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk announced that a suspect was arrested in Zahle on charges of vote buying.

 

While the vote in Beirut was mostly peaceful, outside fisticuffs between supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement in the Christian quarter of Ashrafieh, a chaotic situation reigned in the Bekaa Valley’s Zahle, where three different lists were competing amid clashes and allegations of wide-spread vote-buying. 

 

Brawls also erupted in the Bekaa town of Jeb Jennin, forcing the Internal Security Forces—which has deployed over 20,000 officers across the country—to temporarily close one of the polling stations.

 

Lebanon’s Interior Ministry had earlier postponed voting in Jdita, Howsh Harima and Ain Ata due to security reasons.

 

Despite these problems, the voting process was not marred by any serious security incidents, with politicians mostly lamenting the low turnout.

 

Sunday’s vote is the first in a series of staggered elections, with Mount Lebanon set to vote next week, while south Lebanese voters will go to the polls on May 22, and the north of the country will vote at the end of the month.

 

Beirut

 

“Today is a historic opportunity to change the reality of Beirut for the better,” the Beirut Madinati list said in an early afternoon press conference in which the candidates appealed to citizens to cast their votes.

 

“We have four hours to change six years,” the group added.

 

Their main opponents, the Beirutis List, for its part, has exerted strong efforts to bring out voters, including in the Sunni-populated quarter of Tariq al-Jedideh, one of the Future Movement’s bastions of support in the capital, where party songs were played on the streets from the early hours of the morning.

 

The list’s head, Jamal Itani, said a vote for him and his fellow candidates was one for “developing and reconstructing Beirut.”

 

Lebanon’s Interior Ministry announced earlier that only 10% of the nearly 500,000 residents registered to vote in Beirut had gone to the polls as of 1:00 p.m., a number that Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea called “unacceptable.”

 

Beirut Madinati announced that they had “registered voting irregularities,” a claim seconded by the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections monitoring the voting process.

 

According to LADE, there has been at least 35 incidents in Beirut, including “pressuring voters” at polling stations.

 

In the Ashrafieh district, thought to be where the fiercest electoral battle will take place, the vote appeared to be split between the Beirutis List and Beirut Madinati.

 

At the voting stations, volunteers wearing t-shirts representing all major parties rushed to hand approaching voters slips of paper bearing the names of their candidates. Beirut Madinati’s volunteers were among the most numerous and active.

 

“Monsieur, you should throw them out,” a young woman volunteering for Beirut Madinati said with a smile to a man carrying another list, “and vote for something new.”

 

A young volunteer for Beirut Madinati in the Christian quarter’s Geitawi area, Joseph Khoury, told NOW’s correspondent in Beirut that “more than fifty percent” of voters so far had voted for their list. As NOW was speaking to him, a 30-something male voter passed and said, almost in a hushed voice, “Inshallah (God willing) you’ll win”.

 

Beirut Madinati volunteers at other voting stations in Ashrafieh also struck an optimistic note, claiming that large numbers of people had cast their votes in support of the technocratic list of candidates.

 

 A “Beirutis List” volunteer told NOW he was very confident they would win, though he admitted Beirut Madinati were performing well, and could take some seats. “It’s us and Madinati [in the race] – forget all the others.”

 

A middle-aged man who declined to give his name told NOW he had mixed his vote, nominating some from the Beirutis List and some from Beirut Madinati.

 

“We choose who we want”, he told NOW. “Gone are the days of zay ma hiyye [literally “as it is”, referring to the practice of voting for lists in their entirety without amendment]. The Lebanese people have awoken. Nobody can grab your hand and force you to vote zay ma hiyye. We are human beings, not sheep.”

 

Zahle

 

Anger reigned in the normally quiet Christian city of Zahle, the capital of the Bekaa Valley where Myriam Skaff, the wife of deceased local political heavyweight Elie Skaff, heads a list butting heads against the “Zahle is Worthy” grouping led by Moussa Fattouch, the brother of one of the city’s parliamentarians, as well as another list headed by the city’s mayor that is backed by the country’s main Christian parties.

 

Brawls erupted in the city’s Howsh al-Omara neighborhood between supporters of the Lebanese Forces and Skaff, whose political machine was accused of bribing residents for their vote.

 

LF partisans went as far as attempting to storm one of the Skaff campaign offices in a bid to stop the purported bribery, according to NOW’s correspondent in the Bekaa. Lebanon’s army, which has been deployed in numbers across voting areas to ensure security, intervened to end the fighting.

 

Lebanese Army intelligence officers raided an apartment in Howsh al-Omara following allegations that Fattouch’s campaigners were buying votes as well.

 

One Zahle resident told NOW’s correspondent he was paid $500 by Fattouch’s campaign in order not vote at all, while other residents have had their ID cards confiscated, though this move did not stop them from voting with other people’s IDs.

 

Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk announced later in the day that one suspect had been arrested over the vote buying.

 

Baalbek

 

Unlike elsewhere in Lebanon, turnout was heavy in the Bekaa town of Baalbek, one of Hezbollah’s bastions of support.

 

Despite the party’s popularity in the town, notable families formed the Baalbek Madinati list to challenge the Development and Loyalty list backed by Hezbollah and its ally the Amal Movement, the two main Shiite parties in the country.

 

Similar lists have been formed in other Shiite-populated areas of the country amid growing dissatisfaction with local governance.

 

Although Hezbollah and Amal are expected to sweep the majority of municipalities they are contesting, Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s party has taken the contests seriously enough that for the first time ever it has called on its supporters to cast votes for its lists.

 

Hezbollah’s rallying efforts have appeared to pay dividends, with Baalbek residents expecting the party’s candidates to secure the city’s municipal council.

 

“We know we don’t have a chance to win, but at least we were able to tell people that we do not agree with the power dynamics in our towns,” one Hezbollah supporter told NOW’s correspondent in the Bekaa.

 

“Some people here are against the traditional political parties.”

A Lebanese woman after voting in Sunday's elections. (AFP/Anwar Amro)

Monsieur, you should throw them out.