Christians Could Be Kingmakers

Rym Ghazal

The National
June 5 2009

BEIRUT // While elections might be considered a time of frenzy
in Lebanon, it is relatively subdued this year with the Muslim
vote largely predictable and most of the attention focused on the
Christian vote.

"We know it will be Future Movement for the Sunni seats and Hizbollah
for the Shiite seats, so why should I even bother going and voting
when I know the one I support will win regardless of my vote," said
Haytham Khouja, 25, who is planning to vote in Mazraa in Beirut 3
district where Saad Hariri, the Future Movement’s leader, is running
as a candidate.

Five of Mr Khouja’s friends, all supporters of Future Movement,
expressed the same sentiments, saying they are "relaxed" about these
elections compared with the previous one.

"It was the first elections for me without Syria’s interference, so
I felt my vote could make a difference and it did," said Mr Khouja,
referring to the 2005 parliamentary elections following the withdrawal
of Syrian troops.

So while the Lebanese streets may be packed again with political
posters, experts agree something is absent in the air, a kind of a
missing "provocation".

"There is a loss of interest in the elections in many parts of Lebanon,
particularly the areas controlled by Hizbollah or Hariri as it is
known who will win," said Sami Haddad, a political analyst who has
been monitoring Lebanese elections for the past 10 years.

Mr Haddad lists the lack of the "Syrian element" as one of the main
reasons for the "subdued" feel about this election.

"There is a sort of a peace made with Syria where it does not
interfere with Lebanese politics like before. So, with the outside
enemy provocation removed, some of the heat from the election is lost,"
he said. "This election is more of an internal battle and it is mainly
between the Christians."

"About 100 of the 128 parliamentary seats have been already been
‘decided’ by the major political parties, with the last 20 or so
causing the greatest anxiety among the opposing forces," Mr Haddad

Other changes that may have had an impact on these elections,
explained Mr Haddad, is the fact that every political party now has
its own TV station, the election process has been made simpler and is
more organised and that there is great trust and expectation put on
the president of Lebanon, Michel Suleiman, who is widely considered
neutral and will be forming the government after the election.

"This election’s main slogan is about not letting the other group win,"
he said.

For Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) supporter Elias Khoury, this election
is exactly about not letting "the others" win and he considers this
election far more important than the last one.

"I am excited and worried at the same time, for people underestimate
just how badly things can go when there are divisions among the
Christians," said Mr Khoury, 23, who will be voting in Jbeil for
Michel Aoun, the leader of FPM.

"I like his ideas as he is the only one talking about cracking down
on corruption, while the other Christian leaders take orders from
Hariri," Mr Khoury said.

His partner in business, Jad, who is also voting in Jbeil but for
the Lebanese Forces (LF) headed by Samir Geagea, one of Mr Aoun’s
greatest opponents, said he will be going in a separate car to elect
his candidate.

"After the elections Elias and I will be sharing a car ride. For now
we have to go separate ways and elect who we believe in," said Jad,
who did not want to give his surname. "Election is election and
business is business."

With talks of the biggest turnout to be among the Christians,
the Armenian vote is also closely watched as their large numbers –
there are 12,000 voters in the district of Metn alone – can have a
significant influence on who wins.

"It is not clear how the Armenians will vote," said Jihad al Murr,
who runs the Al Murr TV station and whose father ran in the last
elections. He is also the nephew of the MP Michel al Murr, who helped
Mr Aoun win seats in Metn in the last election, but is now supporting
the March 14 coalition.

"How the Christians will vote will determine how the country will
be run in the next four years," said Mr al Murr. "People who never
voted before are voting now for the first time," he said. "Every vote
now matters."

The often unnoticed minorities in the country, such as the Druze,
are also putting in an extra effort this time.

"I was told that my vote is crucial by my party and so that is why
I decided I had to come," said Faten Baz, 25, who along with her
husband had their tickets bought for them by their party so that they
could fly in from Saudi Arabia and vote in Western Beqaa for Walid
Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party candidate.

Before her marriage Mrs Baz would vote in Aley, a Jumblatt stronghold;
after her marriage her voting card switched to Western Beqaa, an area
where her vote matters, she said. "While I don’t agree with all the
policies of the party, I want to vote as I don’t want the other party
to win," she added.

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