Lebanese voters swamp the polls

The country's pro-western coalition could be toppled by Hizbollah and its allies, as far greater numbers than anticipated by authorities voted.

A Lebanese policeman inspects voters' identity cards as they wait in line to cast their ballots at a polling station in Zahle, in the Bekaa valley June 7, 2009. Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies are looking to defeat Lebanon's ruling U.S.-backed coalition in a tightly contested general election on Sunday.   REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir (LEBANON POLITICS ELECTIONS IMAGES OF THE DAY) *** Local Caption ***  LBN39_LEBANON ELECT_0607_11.JPG
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BEIRUT // An election battle that could topple the pro-western government of Lebanon in favour of a coalition led by Hizbollah unfolded yesterday as millions of eligible Lebanese voters flooded polling stations in far greater numbers than anticipated by authorities. Despite the presence of more than 50,000 security forces in Beirut and surrounding towns, poll workers were caught by surprise by the massive turnout.

Voters thronged by the thousands around the country just after the polls opened at 7am and by midday candidates and officials from both sides were complaining that their supporters might be unable to vote before the polls close at 7pm. Official results were not expected before today. The long-awaited contest could resolve a more than two-year-old power struggle between the pro-western coalition of Sunni, Druze and some Christian parties and a newly emboldened alliance of Shiite parties led by Hizbollah and its Christian allies, led by Michel Aoun, a former general.

Tensions between the two sides led to political paralysis in 2006 after the summer war with Israel that remained unresolved until a series of sectarian clashes in May 2008 forced both sides to compromise on a unity government led by Michel Suleiman as president. But yesterday's polling could give one side a clear advantage in the continuing power struggle. But the fight for control of the 128-seat parliament will not end with yesterday's poll, regardless of which side wins, but will begin the negotiations over the composition of the next government. Although the opposition has said it will pursue some form of a unity government with the current government should it win, the so-called March 14 coalition led by Saad Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister assassinated in 2005, has rejected including opponents in its cabinet.

There are widespread and legitimate fears that the failure to agree on a post-election government that is acceptable to both sides could see a repeat of last year's violence. The major Sunni and Shiite parties will be able to control their chances through impressively funded voter-turnout efforts, as well as with an election law heavily weighted towards protecting entrenched political interests. But Lebanon's Christian minority and its fractious internal politics will provide the margin of victory for the eventual outcome. And many of these key swing districts are located in a handful of Christian areas around the Mount Lebanon region, where security was intense.

Despite concerns that security forces would be unable to contain potential flashpoints, the voting yesterday was essentially free of violence with only a handful of small-scale altercations disrupting only a few polling places. More than 3.2 million people were eligible to vote in a country that numbers only four million people because of the huge size of the Lebanese diaspora. Tens of thousands of potential voters arrived from abroad in the days before the elections.

The widespread participation in the voting led to one of the day's biggest controversies, with Mr Aoun complaining that his supporters were unable to cast their ballots in districts critical to an opposition victory. After casting his vote in a southern Beirut district, Mr Aoun said: "I blame the authorities for not the taking the right procedures. "We warned them in the national dialogue. People are humiliated and packed in lines and the process is too slow."

The interior minister, Ziad Baroud, who is nominally aligned with Mr Aoun's political party, called for patience and calm, describing the turnout as unprecedented. But the controversy could provide ammunition for either side to dispute the final results when they are official announced this afternoon. In a press conference yesterday, Mr Baroud defended the process. "The reason why voting is taking longer than expected is because people are not lining up properly and not co-operating to make it easier on everyone to come in and vote. We cannot extend the deadline for the voting because it is illegal."

In the critical swing district of Borj Hammoud, MP Ghassan Moukhiaber, a member of Mr Aoun's bloc, expressed tentative optimism about the results and the process. "I can never be confident right now, but only optimistic and hopeful that I will win," he said in an interview. As Mr Moukhiaber spoke, international observers led by Jimmy Carter, a former US president, arrived to check on conditions in the voting station, which was located in a police headquarters.

"Things seem to be going fine," Mr Carter said. "But we will see what happens later." He then began interviewing voters and polling officials about the long lines and access to the voting system to determine if the elections were being conducted fairly. In the southern suburbs of Beirut, a longtime Hizbollah stronghold that remains the ancestral home to many Christian voters, many voters complained about the long lines and crowd control issues to international observers from the America National Democracy Institute. "I have been here for more than 2½ hours," said Antoinette, a 50-year-old Christian supporter of Mr Aoun. "I got pushed and yelled at, this is not normal," she complained to observers as she left without casting her vote.

"They scratched my arms; it's a jungle in here, not an election process." Incidents appeared to be of garden-variety problems related to the large crowds and not the result of sectarian and political violence as many had feared. One voting monitor from Mr Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, who would not give his name, said there was some minor tension with their rivals in the Christian village of Roumieh, which is fairly evenly split between Mr Aoun and government supporters.

"In the early morning the Lebanese Forces [a pro-government Christian party] partisans were not allowing our observers to enter the polling stations. There was some pushing and the army intervened right away." In the heart of Christian Lebanon, the mountainous al-Metn district, which is considered a bellwether fight between the Christian rivals, fears of intra-Christian violence never materialised.

One government supporter said he did not fear election violence but rather worried that a March 14 victory might lead to Hizbollah repeating its violent takeover of Beirut in May 2008 that killed scores of people. "I voted for the full list of March 14," said Serge Abi Raad, a 30-year old voter from Bikfaya. "They will make the change we are waiting for, and I am willing to give them a second chance."

In Bikfaya and across al-Metn, voters turned out dressed in their Sunday best, including hats and heels, some arriving at the polling booths straight after church. Others waited until after the family lunch before casting their vote. Children of all ages dressed from head to toe in party colours stood on street corners and in the middle of the road handing out electoral lists to those passing by.

After successfully holding a safe election, the Lebanese now wait for today's results and the political manoeuvring to establish a new government that will follow. mprothero@thenational.ae With additional reporting by Nour Samaha