Amid fears of Syrian meddling, Lebanon to hold elections

CBC / Canadian Press
June 11 2005

Amid fears of Syrian meddling, Lebanon to hold elections in centre
and east

BASSEM MROUE

ALEY, Lebanon (AP) – Music blared from loudspeakers on cars and
candidates’ pictures beamed from walls Saturday in this mountain
resort, a day before Lebanon’s “Big Sunday,” when voters go to the
polls in the populous centre and east of the country to choose their
representatives in parliament.

Sunday’s vote in the central and eastern regions – together
accounting for nearly half the 128 seats in Parliament – is too close
to call, and the winners could decide the country’s political
direction for the next four years.

Lebanon’s neighbour Syria casts a big shadow over the poll, the first
to be held since Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon after 29 years
six weeks ago. Lebanon’s anti-Syrian forces, who blame Damascus and
its local allies for the murders of former premier Rafik Hariri and
anti-Syrian journalist Samir Kassir, say they fear Syria may be
planning more political assassinations.

“Probably there is a decision – with the knowledge or without the
knowledge of (Syrian) President Assad – to continue the
assassinations,” Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said this week on LBC
television.

Those concerns have been echoed by the United Nations and the United
States, which said Friday Syria had not fully withdrawn its
intelligence operatives from Lebanon and was perhaps even organizing
political assassinations.

“There are reports that we have been hearing about for some time
about Syrian hit lists, targeting key Lebanese public figures of
various political and religious persuasion, for assassination,” White
House spokesman Scott McClellan said. U.S. President George W. Bush
said the reports were “troubling.”

Damascus has strongly denied the allegations.

Lebanon’s anti-Syrian opposition hopes these parliamentary elections
– being held in four stages through June 19 – will end Damascus’
control of the legislature once and for all.

While the race in most of Lebanon is largely between pro-and
anti-Syrian camps, the central and eastern areas have thrown up
surprising alliances between pro-and anti-Syrians.

The vote in central Mount Lebanon, the nation’s most populous region,
has been billed as the “mother of all battles,” with friends and foes
running against each other in a jumble of baffling alliances.

Political tensions have already spilled over into violence. The
government sent army and police reinforcements to Mount Lebanon
fearing clashes between rival groups, mainly allies of Jumblatt and
those supporting former army commander Michel Aoun, who returned home
last month after 14 years in exile.

Aoun, who fought and lost a war against Syria in 1989, was one of
Syria’s main Lebanese foes but recently broke with other opponents of
Damascus and forged alliances with pro-Syrian politicians.

Last week, a gun battle in the mountain resort of Sofar between
Jumblatt’s supporters and those of Druze rival – and Aoun ally –
Talal Arslan left at least seven people wounded.

In the Baabda-Aley constituency, the Aoun-Arslan alliance is fighting
a ticket backed by Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party and the
Lebanese Forces, the main Christian militia during Lebanon’s civil
war, as well as the Syrian-backed militant group Hezbollah. The
battle is too close to call.

In the Chouf area, the Druze heartland, a Jumblatt-Lebanese Forces
ticket is expected to do well, while rival Christian tickets are
battling it out in the Christian heartland of Kesrwan-Byblos.

In Metn, Aoun has forged an alliance with pro-Syrian politician
Michael Murr and Armenian political party Tashnag, against an
anti-Syrian ticket headed by legislator Nassib Lahoud and Pierre
Gemayel, son of former President Amine Gemayel.

Aoun says his feud with Syria is over now that Damascus has withdrawn
from Lebanon. He is campaigning on a promise to fight the corruption
he blames for Lebanon’s economic ills, including a national debt of
over $30 billion US.

In the Bekaa, where 23 seats are being contested, Hezbollah and its
allies are expected to win in the Baalbek-Hermel constituency, while
in the western Bekaa district a tough race is expected between a
ticket backed by Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former prime
minister, and a pro-Syrian alliance.

In the central Bekaa around the provincial capital of Zahle, an
alliance of traditional leader Elie Skaff and Aoun will face stiff
competition from a Hariri-backed ticket that includes former Defence
Minister Mohsen Daloul.

Many Druze in Aley said they would vote for the Jumblatt-backed
ticket.

“I will go out and vote tomorrow for the Mount Lebanon Unity list
because it is a united list representing Muslims and Christians,”
said barber Imad Najm.

In the nearby Christian town of Kahaleh, Aoun’s supporters decorated
the streets with pictures of the candidate and his allies.

“Tomorrow we will vote for Gen. Aoun. I will vote for him because as
a Christian I see him as our saviour on earth. He is our saviour from
corruption and subservience (to Syria),” said Salam Mkarzel, a
housewife from Kahaleh. “My blood is calling me to vote for the whole
ticket.”

On May 29, elections were held in Beirut where a ticket headed by
Hariri won all 19 seats. Last Sunday, Hezbollah and its allies won
all 23 seats in the south. The north votes in the last phase of
elections June 19.

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