Districts in depth: Beirut I

The battle for Beirut’s first district (Beirut I) is on even before candidates for all five seats have been announced. Fighting for votes in the mostly Christian district – which includes Achrafieh, Saifi and Rmeil – will be fierce, and the 2009 election law ensures the contest will be much different than it has been since the end of the civil war.

A majority of the city’s Christians live in Beirut I. This election is as much about determining who represents the majority of Christians as anything else, and winning Beirut I is central for any leaders wishing to make that claim after the vote.  

Of the district’s five seats (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Catholic), vacancies remain on both March 8 and March 14’s candidate lists for the Armenian spots as both alliances try to woo the prominent Tashnaq party.

Polling at this early stage when formal lists have not been announced, according to two Beirut pollsters, shows the March 14 candidates beating those allied with March 8, but it’s still a long road to June 7. That said, many take any poll in Lebanon with a grain of salt.

This is the first time Christians in Beirut will choose their representatives since 1972 – the last elections before the war. In 1992 and 1996 Beirut was a single electoral district which essentially gave the city’s more numerous Muslim population the power to vote in any Christian candidate they wanted. A new electoral law in 2000 divided the city into three districts but was purposefully drawn, at Syria’s insistence, to ensure Christians, the primary opposition to Syria’s presence in Lebanon at the time, were a minority in each.

With lines re-drawn under the 2009 election law, Beirut I now includes Rmeil, along with Achrafieh and Saifi , while excluding the largely Muslim Mazraa area of the city.

There are just under 91,000 registered voters, from 13 sects, on the rolls in Beirut I. According to the Ministry of Interior’s voter rolls, Greek Orthodox voters are the largest community (22,305) followed by Maronites (17,201) and Armenian Orthodox (15,525). But those numbers are deceiving. Many have emigrated and only a fraction of those still living in Lebanon actually live in the district, another factor that could affect polls as Lebanese vote where they are from, instead of where they live. While both of the pollsters interviewed for this article said March 14 candidates are currently leading in the polls, they said the margins are small.

It will, therefore, be incumbent on both March 14 and March 8 to find voters in Lebanon and abroad and bring them to the polls.

“[Both political coalitions] have electoral machines working on that,” said Abdo Saad, a pollster and the president of the Beirut Center for Research and Information, who is considered close to the opposition. “They will locate them, contact them and make sure on the day of the election they send transportation to bring [their voters] to the polling station.”

With the redistricting came a re-shuffle in the seats for Beirut I. The district lost the two Sunni seats it had in 2000 and 2005 and gained two Armenian seats. While Armenian voters will be key to some races, this seems less true in Beirut I, though they will certainly be an important factor. Neither March 8 nor March 14 have announced their candidates for Beirut I’s Armenian seats because the community’s dominant political party, Tashnaq, has not officially announced with whom it will ally.

However, Rabih Haber, a pollster and managing director of Statistics Lebanon, who is considered close to March 14, said the Armenians in Beirut I are less dogmatic about voting with Tashnaq than the Armenians in Bourj Hammoud, which is part of the Metn constituency.

“Around half of the Armenian registered voters in [Beirut I] follow Tashnaq’s decision,” Haber said. Saad, however, disagreed and said around 75 percent of the Armenians in the district would vote with Tashnaq. Both pollsters cited support in the community for two other Armenian parties, namely Ramgavar and Hunchak.

Since 2000, non-Tashnaq Armenians loyal to assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri have won the community’s four seats, but they certainly did not owe their victory to Armenian voters.

For the Maronite seat, March 14 is running the Kataeb party’s Nadim Gemayel. This is the first electoral contest for the son of slain President-elect Bashir Gemayel. Massoud al-Ashkar, who describes himself as an independent, said he will be allying with the Free Patriotic Movement in the race. During the civil war, Ashkar fought alongside both Bashir Gemayel and FPM leader Michel Aoun. Ashkar ran for the seat as an independent in 2000, but lost with 7,963 votes to Future Movement candidate Ghattas Khoury’s 29,717.

FPM candidate Nicolas Sehnaoui is vying to unseat the Future Movement’s Michel Pharaoun as the district’s Greek Catholic representative. Both were businessmen from well-known Achrafieh families before entering politics. Pharaoun won his seat in the 1996 elections and has held it since, running uncontested in 2005 and winning by over 28,000 votes in 2000. This is Sehnaoui’s first run for public office, and prominent members of his extended family announced they will support Pharaoun.

Nayla Tueni, daughter of assassinated journalist MP Gebran Tueni, is also making her political debut as the March 14 candidate for Beirut I’s Greek Orthodox seat. Like her father, she is not a member of any party. She is facing the FPM’s Issam Abu Jamra, who currently serves as deputy prime minister. Abu Jamra is one of two candidates in this race so far, along with Gemayel, whose family is not from Achrafieh. He was in the army during the civil war and served as a minister in Aoun’s government from 1988 to1989.

While keeping the exact number close to their chests, both Haber and Saad said the March 14 candidates are ahead in opinion polls but noted the lead is marginal.

Beirut I will be crucial for both determining the next parliamentary majority and legitimizing Christian leaders’ claims of popular support. The race will probably remain very close and only go to which ever alliance succeeds in motivating and mobilizing more supporters to actually vote.   

  • Yngve

    Good article! Thanks.

    March 23, 2009

  • Tannourine

    Why so much confusion from the Tashnaq Party... it shouldnt take a political party this long to pick a side !!!

    March 23, 2009

  • Sami

    The Tashnaq are allied with March 8th and represent 90% of the Armenians in Lebanon.Any other suggestion is nothing but dreams or wishful thinking.

    March 22, 2009

  • Sami

    The Tashnaq are allied with March 8th and represent 90% of the Armenians in Lebanon.Any other suggestion is nothing but dreams or wishful thinking.

    March 22, 2009

  • zar

    God Damn Family businesses

    March 21, 2009

  • noel

    I am armenian catholic from Achrafieh but I am living in Ottawa,Canada now and my heath is deteriorating,so I won't be able to travel .But I wholehartly support Nadim,Nayla ,Pharaon and the two lebanese armenians who will join them.Two lebanese armenians and not pro syrians or iranians .

    March 21, 2009