Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1996, pg. 73

Letter from Lebanon

Lebanon Elections Produce Support for Government, Complaints of Rigging

by Marilyn Raschka

Unlike the 1992 Lebanese parliamentary elections, the 1996 polls will be remembered not just for wheeling and dealing but also some healing.

These five-phase general elections, Lebanon’s second parliamentary polls since the end of the 1975-1990 strife, began Sunday, Aug. 18, in Mount Lebanon, the most hotly contested province in the country. Then over the following four Sundays elections were held in the provinces of north Lebanon, Beirut, south Lebanon and the Bekaa.

Mt. Lebanon’s label of “hottest” resulted from a law passed by the outgoing parliament which split Mt. Lebanon into six units, with the stated intent of bringing more fresh blood into the legislative body. The law allowed more candidates, but it also meant that candidates could no longer campaign across the whole province. Passed just a week before the Mt. Lebanon elections, the new law gave the opposition no chance to get its machinery into place, and the election results reflected that situation.

The new voting body will be more homogeneous—most being supporters of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. From Hariri’s point of view this means their economic outlook will reflect his, and thereby facilitate the implementation of Hariri’s plans for Lebanon’s economic transformation. This new tilt in parliament also will neutralize what is left of the opposition to government projects. And as a convenient spin-off, with a reduced opposition decisions that affect regional politics also will pass more easily through parliament.

But what price solidarity? Lebanon’s internationally respected Arabic daily An-Nahar ran a headline on Monday, Aug. 19, following the first round of polling, that read: “Democracy was defeated.”

In Lebanon, no facet of democracy is more beloved by the media, political observers and the people than that of the opposition. The extent to which this is true is reminiscent of a line fromThe Godfather in which the don mourns the death of his archenemy saying, and I paraphrase, “You can always find friends, but a good enemy...” As the don looks away, a tear forms.

The opposition has both local and overseas components. From abroad came the voice of Gen. Michel Aoun, the one-time head of the Lebanese army who, in 1989 when he held the reins of power, declared war on Syria. Syria won and Aoun is in his fifth year of exile in France. Amin Gemayel, the other absentee opposition leader, was president from 1982-88. Both men are anti-Hariri. Their call for a boycott of the polls was for the most part disregarded, but it caused dissension and confusion and wounded the opposition.

The hometown opposition boys were standard names and faces. The Robert Dole of the parliament, Albert Mukhaiber, a multiple incumbent who through his venerable age was known as the moral weight of the opposition, lost in the Mt. Lebanon elections.

The Costs of Victory

The near landslide victory for Hariri and his men didn’t come cheaply or without sowing deep resentment. The incumbents had all the advantages. Major networks in Lebanon lavished live coverage on “Hariri loyalist” rallies and followed, puppy-dog style, those candidates most likely to win. Critics claim that money was exchanged to ensure media cooperation.

One center of parliamentary opposition that Hariri went all out to gut was Hezbollah. Hariri came right out and said he wanted no radicals in the government, and Hariri’s term “radical” included Christian Mukhaiber. Hariri’s tirades against the various aspects of Hezbollah—the militia, the resistance group and the political party—received constant coverage from the media and, lo and behold, an incumbent Hezbollah MP, Ali Ammar, lost.

Hariri’s partners in this rein-and-contain movement were Nabih Berri, the speaker of Parliament and a secular Shi’a who contests with Hezbollah the leadership of Lebanon’s 1.2 million Shi’is, and Walid Jumblatt, head of Lebanon’s Druze community and a minister in the government.

An-Nahar summed up the attack saying, “Hezbollah is facing a merciless war by [these] three powerful leaders. It is clear that this war is aimed at clipping the wings of the bird that has outgrown all others so fast that they are panicked.” All this has sparked speculation as to whether the attack was Syrian-inspired in the light of regional developments. Hezbollah, which kept a low profile during the campaign, came out following Ammar’s defeat with the charge that Hariri could not wait to shake hands with Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s hard-line new prime minister.

After votes were counted in Mt. Lebanon elections, the government had won 32 of the 35 seats—a crushing victory. A poll before the elections began showed that fewer than a quarter of those interviewed trusted the system to deliver impartial elections.

Voting irregularities, which were widely reported in 1992 by the press, were documented this time around by the Association for Election Democracy. Some 100 volunteers observed the goings on which included: The illegal detaining of campaigners. The illegal distribution of a prepared list of government-favored candidates and interference by police and security forces.

Individual complaints were numerous. One 56-year-old man was refused a ballot because his birth date was listed as 1840. This was a change of pace from the still common practice of using IDs of deceased persons to add volume to the ballot box.

One group of voters who showed keen interest in participation were Maronite Christians displaced in fighting in the Shouf (southeast of Beirut) in 1982-83. “This time we got excited because the atmosphere in the country allowed us to vote in freedom,” a 50-year-old man said. In 1992 a lack of confidence in security kept Christian participation in the polling to 5 percent. If there is a light at the far end of the polling booth, this man turned it on. He cast a vote for Lebanon, for his future and for healing.