Lebanon’s Elections

Today’s predawn stillness was shortly and regularly broken by the crowing of Beirut’s eternal chanters, its roosters. Some from as many as 20 stories up in downtown and Hamra apartment building balconies and roofs, others shunted and jammed into small cages or pits inside the Palestinian Refugee Camps. They seemed to speak and pass messages from the posh neighborhoods of East Beirut to the gypsy shacks and tents near Ouzai, as they welcomed the new day.

The votes have been tallied and the election results show pretty much a status quo ante with the Majority picking up a net four seats (a new total of 71 with 57 for the Opposition) at the expense of the Christian Maronite leader and Opposition ally, former General Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement. Sometimes contentious in the heat of campaign, the FPM was gracious this morning in conceding its opponents will remain the Majority, if obviously disappointed.

One FPM supporter was in tears and she explained that having been educated abroad, she returned to Lebanon and hoped an Opposition victory would expose and end rampant corruption and the Ziam graft system and she was depressed because she fears things might remain as they have been. Michel de Chadarevian, a member of Gen. Michel Aoun’s FPM political bureau told the media that FPM was disappointed with the election result but would respect the outcome and would now work with all parties to form a government of national unity.  “Lebanon can only be governed by a national unity government,” he said. “Even if we had won we would have formed a national unity government.”

Hezbollah, which won all 11 districts in which it fielded its 11 candidates, and along with its allies won 21 seats in southern Lebanon succeeded in raising its vote tallies, despite a Saudi-funded rival Shai party, Lebanon Option Movement. Hezbollah’s and its allies also won 10 seats in the eastern Baalbek region.

Hezbollah member, Hasan Fadlallah, an MP in the outgoing parliament, explained: “What matters to us now is that Lebanon turns a new page, one based on partnership, cooperation and understanding,” he said. “Lebanon’s specificity is in its diversity and there is no majority or minority. No party can claim to have won the majority among all communities.” Hezbollah MP Mohamed Raad, the Opposition leader in Parliament, reminded his fellow Lebanese that “the majority must commit not to question our role as a resistance party, the legitimacy of our weapons arsenal and the fact that Israel is an enemy state”.

The US administration is reportedly disappointed that their ‘Team’ did not achieve a stronger victory.  Just before the voting, the Obama administration allowed Jeffrey Feltman, Deputy Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, in clear violation of Lebanon voting laws, which required no campaigning after midnight on Friday, to blitz the media through carefully timed interviews with pro-Majority An-Nahar and al-Hayat newspapers, with his personal calls for the Lebanese to have enough intelligence to vote as Feltman saw fit.  Many Lebanese resented the additional interference in which Feltman announced: “The election’s outcome will naturally affect the world’s stance towards the new Lebanese government and the manner in which the United States and Congress deal with Lebanon. I believe the Lebanese are smart enough to understand that there will be an effect.”

Feltman attacked the head of the Free Patriotic Movement MP General Michel Aoun, lecturing Lebanese voters: “one of your politicians is proposing that Christians shouldn’t depend on the United States. I hope the Lebanese had accurately listened to the president’s [Barack Obama] speech that specifically pointed to the widest Christian religious minority in Lebanon, the Maronites. The president spoke about the need for respecting all peoples in the region including minorities…I hope the Lebanese would ask themselves: do we want to be on the side of the international community and close to the stances that president Obama made? I hope they would say, yes.”

The June 7, 2009 election has done little to change the political landscape here. It was never a question of an Islamic Republic if the Opposition had decisively prevailed or whether Hezbollah’s weapons would be decommissioned before Lebanon was able to defend itself. Nor was it in question that a slim majority by either side would not require a renewed commitment to the Taef Accord calls and the full implementation of all the clauses and the need for Parliament to enact a modern electoral law based on proportional representation which a majority in Lebanon desire.

With regard to the noisy issue of the arms of the resistance, there remains insufficient political will in Lebanon to force the issue in Parliament, although Israel has wasted no time insisting on it. The new parliament has important business to conduct, from granting women rights, including the right to confer nationality on their children, to aiding the Palestinian refugees with civil rights until the return to their country and many other pressing social issues.

Many Lebanese while exhausted are justifiably proud of their generally well-conducted voting day at more than 1,400 polling stations in 26 voting Districts and are willing to work with their political adversaries for the common good of Lebanon.

Having spent election day as a last minute appointed “foreign observer” with the Coalition Libanaise pour L’Observation des Elections, I went, for 13 hours, with colleagues from polling place to polling place, from Beirut, Dahiyeh, Saida and Tyre plus some villages near Qana   and around Nabiteye.  We watched as voter IDs are verified and announced at each voting room; saw them checked again by all the poll watchers against their copy of the master list of registered voters who were allowed to cast ballots at their sites.

Once the watchers all approve the name and identity of the would be voter, the voter signs a registration, steps behind the curtain and places a 2 inch by 2 inch “list” with the names of his choice inside an envelope (the voter can cancel a name and ‘write in’ another candidate if he/she wishes), seals it, exits the curtain and puts in into a large clear plastic box for all in the room to see, sticks a thumb in a bottle of dark purple dye (the first time this precaution, designed to prevent multiple voting,  has ever been used in Lebanese elections), signs a form attesting to his vote and leaves the room as another voter enters. Last night at exactly 7 pm all voting stations were closed. Anyone in line was allowed to vote.   My observer team happened to be at a school in Dahiyeh.

As the army chained and pad locked the school yard gates locking us inside, probably 25 soldiers, and no doubt additional plain clothes security, asked people to move one block away from the voting station. Inside, the chief of the polling station allowed us to watch silently outside the room with the door open and to take photos as the vote count started.  Each ballot was removed one by one.  It was placed on a scanner and the ballot with its identifying number was shown on a 4 foot by six foot screen.  Each watcher, whether from March 8 or March 14 checked it, wrote down of his/her list the voter number (no names are used) nodded to the Chief, marked their Master Sheet, and the next ballot was taken from the voting box.  The atmosphere was serious, polite and everyone appeared exhausted but proud of their work.  When the chains were removed from the gates ( it took two signatures from ranking officers to accomplish this feat) we  departed the voting station commending the soldiers,  and poll workers, many of whom had not slept for two days they told us, for their accomplishment of running a largely exemplary voting process. Our delegation concluded that this aspect of Lebanon’s election had been administered very well.

The serious problem our team observed and one that could have been easily avoided concerned the very long voter lines which were unnecessary. In every voting station we observed, while there may have been an average of eight to ten poll watchers, five security people and three staff at the head table administering the balloting, there was only one voting booth at each station. This resulted in hundreds of people, at many voting stations, spending four hours or more in the sweltering heat, some with small children or babies. I saw many elderly looking as if they could not stand up much longer.  Why each station did not have a dozen voting booths is an open question.

Many Lebanese worked hard for months from the different parties and all labored proudly with hope for their unique country and society which saw a record average turnout at 53 per cent up from 45 per cent in 2005.  In highly contested Districts such in Metn and Akkar, the average turnout was 65 per cent.  Hundreds of thousands of registered voters remained abroad and this is one reason why 53 per cent may not seem impressively high, but actually it is.  Those based here such as Lebanese government employees, who voted two days early so they could work on Election Day, achieved turnout figures between 89 per cent and 95 per cent, a record for Lebanon. In non-competitive or already decided Districts, some Lebanese preferred a day of relaxation at the beach or with family and friends to a sometimes long trip to their village to vote, and sometimes only then to cast a vote that will not affect the outcome of the election.

FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon.  He can be reached at fplamb@sabrashatila.org.

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.