Day By Day

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Power of a Name -- The First Round of Lebanese Elections is Over

Reuters reports:

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Candidates led by the son of slain ex-premier Rafik al-Hariri won all the seats in Beirut in Lebanon's general election on Sunday, a government source said....

Saad al-Hariri's anti-Syrian bloc had already won nine of the capital's 19 seats in the 128-member parliament before the vote because they were not contested. The source said candidates on Hariri's list had taken all 10 undecided seats.

"This victory is for Rafik al-Hariri. Today Beirut showed its loyalty to Rafik al-Hariri," Hariri, 35, told a jubilant crowd celebrating outside his villa in the capital.

"Today is a victory for democracy...freedom and sovereignty," he said to chanting supporters....

"It's a festival of democracy," the chief of the EU mission [that was monitoring the elections], Jose Ignacio Salafranca, told reporters at one polling station.

Well, maybe. Certainly this is a hopeful development, but remember:

1) this is only the first round of a complex series of elections and Berirut represents less than one sixth of Lebanon's electorate. Things will change significantly as future polling moves outside the city.

2) turnout was unexpectedly low.
[V]oters denied Hariri the high turnout he sought in the first polls in
three decades with no Syrian troops in Lebanon. Interior Minister Hassan
al-Sabaa put the turnout at 28 percent. The capital had a 34 percent turnout in
2000, when Hariri's father, then cooperating with Syria, also swept the

3) The anti-Syrian movement is having problems:

The solidarity of the anti-Syrian alliance that blossomed after Hariri's death has eroded in the run-up to the election.

Hariri's alliance with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and some Christian foes of Syria is intact, but [General Michel] Aoun, a fierce opponent of Syria just back from exile, was left out in the cold....

Followers of Christian leader Michel Aoun, left off Hariri's anti-Syrian ticket, had urged people to shun the polls, handing out orange stickers that said: "Boycott the appointments."

4) The early promise of Christian/Druze/Sunni Muslim cooperation, so prominently displayed in the spring demonstrations, has not been fully manifested. Christians and Shiite Muslims were largely shut out of these local elections.

Still, these problems may not be all that important.

1) The low turnout may simply reflect the fact that everyone knew, prior to the elections, who was going to win.
"Why should I vote when the result is already decided?" said Abdul-Rahman Itani, in his 40s.

2) Some of the low turnout may be just [mainly young] people's revulsion at the cynical negotiating that lies at the heart of the democratic process.
For others, the euphoria of the anti-Syrian protests has given way to dismay
at politicians who have reverted to electoral horse-trading and alliances that
curtail voter choice.

3) The deal-making has the possibility of cementing cross-faith alliances.
[T]he Hariri-Jumblatt front has... made deals with the main pro-Syrian Shi'ite alliance. Hariri's Beirut ticket includes a Hizbollah candidate. The joint Amal-Hizbollah list in the south embraces Bahiya al-Hariri, the slain leader's sister.

4) Future elections will be more closely contested and turnout will be higher as a result.
The election results are broadly predictable in Beirut and the south, but tighter contests are expected in the north and center of the country, especially among Christian rivals.

One thing that stands out in all of this is the power of the name "Hariri." The slain leaders widow, his son, and his sister have all emerged as major figures in post-Syrian Lebanon.

The youthful idealism of the Cedar Revolution has given way to democratic politics. Some might be dismayed by this, but the early hopes were far from realistic. Still, the deal-cutting is providing a continuing basis for a dynamic relationship among Lebanon's various confessional groups, and workable shifting arrangements seem to be emerging. This is the glory of democracy as properly practiced. It ain't pretty, but it works well enough to provide a common basis for political action. All in all, the early results from Beirut seem to indicate that post-Syrian Lebanon is not likely to fall back into the welter of violence and chaos of a previous generation. The experience of Syrian occupation seems to have created sufficient national consciousness to prevent that.

Still, there is HizBullah to worry about. Things could still fall apart.

Stay tuned....

Read Reuters report here.

CNN video report here.

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