'Fair' ballot a triumph for democracy

Reports of violations such as Shiite votes which disappeared and the use of fake identities did not hinder overall result.

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BEIRUT // Irregularities in the Lebanese parliamentary elections tainted some results, but international monitors said yesterday that overall the elections were fair. "There were a lot of logistical problems because of the influx of voters in the morning, but the army and the internal security handled it well," said Joseph Bahout, who was part of the International Organisation of the Francophonie observing the elections.

"The quality of the elections was fairly good. The mere fact that there were a number of local and international observers gave the elections a guarantee to be fair." The official results announced yesterday showed the March 14 coalition won with 68 parliamentary seats; the March 8 opposition won 57. Three independents also won. But according to local observers, there were a number of violations carried out by both sides.

These included the recruitment of children to hand out lists outside polling stations, the presence of party members within 200 metres of the stations and discrepancies within polling booths, according to the election monitoring observers. "Overall, these elections were definitely better than the last ones, in 2005, and even better than the ones eight years ago," said Rouba Zeiban, an observer with the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, which had recruited approximately 3,000 citizens to observe.

"There was more control over the crowds, but the issues noted are those that tend to happen all the time here in Lebanon." Christina Ghantous, another local observer, based at the Bikfaya polling station, said the elections had passed smoothly. "It went fine, nothing really happened, and I did not notice any irregularities." Mohammed Raad, a member of parliament from Hizbollah, which heads the March 8 coalition that lost the elections, said on Sunday that the huge increase in turnout, plus the paucity of polling stations and judges to facilitate those extra voters, created problems for voters.

The problem lay largely with limited human resources. Ziad Baroud, the minister of the interior, had previously admitted that holding the elections on a single day would be a strain on the security apparatus. Each polling booth had to have one member of the internal security standing guard, but members of the army, for example, were not allowed inside the polling station, resulting in a limited number of polling stations across the country, Mr Baroud said on Sunday.

Sources across the country have said such violations as vote-buying and bribing had taken place in certain key areas, such as the Beirut 1 district, and in Zahle. One source claimed that up to 7,000 Shiite votes in the region of Zahle "disappeared". There were reports of people using fake identities to try to cast ballots. In certain villages across al-Metn, votes were being bought for $1,000 (Dh3,670) a piece, according to local news reports.

Yet Mr Bahout stated that accusations such as these are considered "a national sport in Lebanon, and is completely normal. After a couple of weeks they will go away. Nothing seriously substantial was seen." Minutes after the closing of polling stations on Sunday night, Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, the largest Christian party in the March 8 alliance, stated that there had been a number of violations, including bribery, the absence of judges and several incidents in which people were refused the right to cast their vote.

Syrian newspapers yesterday claimed that vote-buying and fraud tainted the elections and the final results. The US-backed March 14 coalition "has been accused of having bought votes and using bribery," said Al-Baath, the daily newspaper of the Baath Party, adding that "this could pave the way to large-scale falsification of the election". Syria's independent Al-Watan daily commented: "The most important political ballot in Lebanon's history ? and politically tainted money has had the last word.

"Election cash played a decisive role in the election result, because the [pro-western] loyalists allocated a huge budget for vote-buying, for spending money in the polling booths ? and in bringing expatriates [around the world] to vote," the mass-circulation newspaper said. Generally, though, the response from the international community was positive towards the running of the election and its victors. According to the Middle East News Agency, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, telephoned the March 14 bloc to offer his congratulations. "Egypt welcomes the results of the elections and their reflection of the people's will and its choices," he said.

Israel was also content with the election results. "The election results in Lebanon mark the culmination of a process that matured with the breakout of the Second Lebanon War," Amir Peretz, who was the Israeli defence minister during the 2006 war, told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth yesterday. "We need to reiterate our willingness to be constructive towards Lebanon, as long as the peace in the north is maintained," he added.

"It is incumbent upon any government that is formed in Beirut to ensure that Lebanon will not be used as a base for violence against the state of Israel and against Israelis," the Israeli foreign ministry said in a statement. nsamaha@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse