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Districts in Depth: West Bekaa- Rashaya

In many parts of Lebanon, the electoral battle this year is purely political, tribal, sectarian or based on services, money or emotion. West Bekaa- Rashaya is a mix of all of these in one district.

The deciding factor in the elections, experts say, will be the Sunni and Christian demographics. The competition is so tight that 3,000 votes could potentially shift the balance for either March 14 or March 8.

A total of 112,387 voters are registered across 62 villages in West Bekaa and Rashaya, and out of them, 50,043 actually went to the polls in 2005, representing 44% of the population. The same turnout is expected in this year’s elections.

Six seats are up for grabs this year in the West Bekaa: two Sunni, one Shia, one Greek Orthodox, one Maronite and one Druze.

The majority of the seats – currently held by March 14 MPs Wael Abu Faour (Druze), Robert Ghanem (Maronite), Antoine Saad (Orthodox), Jamal Jarrah (Sunni) and Ahmad Fattouh (Sunni) – are being contested by 33 candidates.

The Shia seat is currently being held by Amal MP Nasser Nasrallah, who made it to the parliament in 2005 largely as a result of the quadripartite alliance that brought together Hezbollah, Amal, the Future Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP).

Of the incumbent MPs, Abu Faour, Ghanem, Saad and Jarrah will be running again. MP Fattouh withdrew his candidacy in favor of his allies, Jarrah and Ziad al-Qaderi, who are running for the two Sunni seats. Amin Wehbe of the Democratic Left will be March 14’s candidate for the Shia spot.

Heading the opposition ticket is former minister and Sunni MP Abdul Rahim Mrad, who ran for parliament but did not make it in 2005. Mrad held three ministerial posts and was elected MP three times during the era of Syrian control over Lebanon. He also maintains a wide network of institutions in the Bekaa, including a university, schools, educational centers and an orphanage.

Former minister and MP Elie Ferzli is joining Mrad on the ticket for the Orthodox seat, and Mohammad Al Qaraawi of Al-Qaroun is going for the second Sunni seat. Development and Liberation bloc MP Nasser Nasrallah, a Shia, is running for the second time, albeit under a different political formula than that of the quadripartite alliance of which he was a part in 2005. Faisal al-Daoud, a Druze who ran and lost in 2005, is taking another shot this year.

For its part, the Free Patriotic Movement is betting on Henri Chedid for the Maronite seat. This is the first time FPM leader MP Michel Aoun is represented by a candidate in the area.

Since 1992, Syria formed the electoral tickets in the Bekaa until its withdrawal in 2005. After that, despite its geographical proximity to Syria, West Bekaa-Rashaya proved its allegiance to former premier Rafik Hariri and his Future Movement.

The redistricting following the Doha Agreement did not change the political landscape in West Bekaa- Rashaya, and the two cazas are still a single electoral constituency this election.

But the opposition claims that much has changed to their advantage since 2005.

In an interview with NOW Lebanon, MP Ferzli said that there will be more Christian participation this year and that March 14 will lose some votes because four years have passed since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which he said dampens people’s motivation to vote for Future.

Amin Wehbe, the Democratic Left candidate who is running on the March 14 ticket, however, rejected any such claim and said that people’s choices are a result of solid political beliefs rather than one-off emotional reactions.
 
“People are mature, and their understanding and adherence to the principles proposed by March 14 is serious and conscientious... We want stability and progress for the country, and voters also want stability, growth and peace of mind,” he said.

March 14 MP Jamal Jarrah agreed, telling NOW, “This region’s political stance is clearly aligned with Hariri and his allies. Despite the distribution of money, weapons and the unlimited Syrian support, families of the Bekaa have a clear, defined position and allegiance.”

Muhammad Salem, the mayor of Al Biri, a Bekaa village that is home to over 750 potential voters, said people in the community support the Future Movement and its allies.

“The elections are not a matter of people but of the fate of a country. We are pro-Lebanon as Rafik Hariri wanted it, first and foremost,” Salem said. “We are with the country, and we support those who have the country’s interest at heart,” he added.

The quadripartite alliance that existed during the last elections virtually eliminated the chances of any candidate who opposed the Future Movement, the PSP, Hezbollah or Amal.

Seventy percent of the Sunni community voted, which played a major role in shifting the balance toward the March 14 forces. Shia and Druze voters participated in almost equal numbers (59 and 58% respectively). Only five percent of Maronites cast their votes.

Now, with the quadripartite balance long dismantled, the Shia are likely to shift their support to March 8.

Ferzli told NOW Lebanon that this redirection of Shia votes would result in his victory. “In 2005, we gained a huge number of votes. For example, I took 18,000 votes and I needed another four or five thousand to make it. If the Shia community gives me that this year, the outcome would change,” he said.

He added that the participation of Aoun in this election will also help the opposition’s standing. 

But the participation of the Shia is expected to be matched by a Sunni electorate fired up following the May 7 events.

Veteran journalist and elections expert from Zahle Najib Khazzaka told NOW Lebanon that May 7 reignited the sectarian sentiment of the Sunnis against Hezbollah and mobilized voters, who will most likely cast their ballots for the entire list, he said.

Rabih Haber, a pollster close to March 14, told a local television station Sunday that Ferzli and Mrad both have a good chance in the race, but that the rest of the seats will all probability go to March 14.

But sources close to the opposition are expecting Mrad and Ferzli’s victory as well as either the Shia or the Maronite candidate.

Khazzaka said that almost 12,000 Christians are expected to cast their votes this year. Forty-five percent of them back Aoun, 30% support the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb, and 25% are undecided. The Christian vote therefore could swing the district to either side.

In terms of the Druze seat, Wael Abu Faour of the PSP and Faisal Daoud are competing, but there have been no major changes since the previous elections, when the former won by a margin of over 9,000 votes.

Khalil Abu Saad, a prominent lawyer from Rashaya, attested to Abu Faour’s positive contributions to the Bekaa, his qualifications and presence in the region.

“He is in a comfortable position, and so is Robert Ghanem, who has a good record. It is the Orthodox and the Sunni positions that are most heated up here,” he said.

Robert Ghanem, who entered parliament in 1992, has a political momentum bolstered by his educational development organization, which benefits scores of people in the Bekaa.

He said that the outcome of the elections is hard to predict, but “this region has never once let me down since 1992 because its people are loyal.”

For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood will be throwing its weight behind the March 14 ticket. With some two or three thousand voters in its pocket, its support could play a major role in defining the winning ticket.

As for the Communist Party, it is again running alone this year.

The party’s former general secretary, Farouq Dahrouj, has run in every single election since 1992 but has never won. In 2005, he did manage to garner 10,688 votes. He will be running independently this year as the March 8 forces failed to forge a deal with him.

“We have a historical relationship [with Dahrouj], but we are trying to avoid issues that might upset the Islamic religious institution… We cannot afford such a confrontation,” Ferzli said.

Voters who historically supported the Communist Party may turn their attention to Amin Wehbe, a former Communist Party member who won in the municipality elections in 1998.

“Some people [from the Communist Party] might choose to vote for me; others might not. There’s a lot of competition, but our position is very good,” Wehbe told NOW.

With approximately seven weeks to the elections, nothing is certain. Both sides have a lot at stake between political conviction and allegations of vote-buying, and there is always the possibility that both sides could make it to the parliament this year.

“No matter the outcome, we all have to accept the results. This is the spirit we should all have,” Ghanem said.

  • Mv.Rima

    Although a major portion of West Bekaai's support March 14, this time, not the whole list will make it. That's because of the bad choice of certain members on the list. For a long time now, people have been voicing dislike of of a specific member who, surprisingly, made it again to the list. Moreover, with all due respect to Yassar Demoqrati, it does not represent the beliefs and values of people in West Bekaa. You cannot bring people so unlike their base as represntatives. Precisely why Farouk Dahrouj did not make it on the March 8 list. As a disappointed March 14 supporter, I can easily see the defeat of at least 2 members on the March 14 list. I just don't understand how those who formed the list could not see it.

    April 22, 2009