Shia-Sunni alliance ties up Beirut's municipal elections

Saad Hariri joins up with sectarian rival Nabi Berri, marginalising Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun.

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BEIRUT // An agreement between prime minister Saad Hariri's dominant Sunni party and his long-time sectarian rival, the parliamentary speaker Nabi Berri, to host a slate of candidates for Beirut's municipal and mayoral elections has effectively determined the outcome of the races before Sunday's voting.

Barring a profoundly shocking outcome of the polling, candidates selected by Mr Hariri's Future Movement and Mr Berri's Amal Movement will be victorious on Sunday evening, leaving the largest Christian opposition leader fuming that there will be no effective opposition to the dominant slate. Michel Aoun, already bruised by his surprising losses last weekend in several districts thought to be strongholds, declared that his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) would boycott the Beirut elections in protest that no Sunni Muslim opposition figure could be found to challenge Mr Hariri's dominance.

Mr Aoun had tried to persuade his Shiite allies in both Amal and Hizbollah to join the boycott, which would have cast an air of illegitimacy on the elections, as Lebanese tradition requires all major sects to at least participate. However, Mr Berri, a frequent annoyance to Mr Aoun despite their nominal alliance, chose victory for his candidates in one of his most important areas of political support. Hizbollah, which has less support in the districts in question, tepidly agreed to Mr Aoun's request that it boycott the races by announcing a policy of neutrality on the lists in question.

Mr Aoun said after he failed to get Mr Hariri to agree on any of his demands for the FPM to join the list: "There is a tendency for dominating the capital and nobody accepts that the municipal electorate is larger than the parliamentary electorate." For his part, Mr Hariri ignored Mr Aoun's claims during the announcement of the slate of candidates selected by his party along with Amal and a host of smaller aligned parties, including Tashneq, an Armenian party that belies its small size with huge influence over a predominately Armenian district in East Beirut. The announcement was made on Tuesday night.

Lebanese political commentators said that with the addition of the Tashneq party to the Amal alliance, Mr Hariri did not need to placate Mr Aoun to decisively win Beirut's various municipal posts. But Mr Aoun's anger over being excluded from the Beirut alliance paled compared with his fury over losses in what had previously been the heartland of his support in previous elections last Sunday. Mr Aoun's favoured candidates lost in the northern town of Jbeil to Christian parties aligned with the majority.

However, the Christian opposition party did manage one upset of its own to offset some of the losses when it won in the Beirut suburb of Baabda, with substantial help from Hizbollah and Amal. The results saw Mr Aoun immediately crying foul over what he described as vote-buying and corruption in Jbeil. "In Mount Lebanon, they raped the elections with Jbeil's results and, of course, Jbeil is politically important to us. When you know what really happened there, you won't care for the result," he said after a party meeting on Tuesday.

Mr Aoun also accused the government of causing the problem with mismanagement in what was otherwise considered an effective and incident free day of voting. The accusation caused the president, Michel Suleiman, who is neutral in these races, to mildly rebuke Mr Aoun, saying that any complaints about corruption or vote-buying should be referred to prosecutors and not the media.