Al-Ahram Weekly
31 August - 6 September 2000
Issue No. 497
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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A lighter Syrian shadow

By Ranwa Yehia

Last Sunday, some 600,000 of the 1.3 million registered voters cast their ballots to elect 63 deputies to the 128-member, half Christian half Muslim, legislature.

Observers said the 51 per cent turnout in the first of two phases of the elections, showed that voters did not heed calls by right-wing Christian parties to boycott the ballot. The official results, which were announced by Interior Minister Michel Murr late Monday, the election of 38 incumbents, 8 former deputies and 17 first-time deputies.

Two new members, Emile Emile Lahoud, son of President Emile Lahoud, and Pierre Jemayel, son of former President Amin Jemayel, represented the entrance into the legislature of a new generation from politically active families.

The vicious media war between the government-owned television and Future Television, owned by former premier Rafik Hariri, is expected to subside prior to the second phase following Syria's summoning of major Lebanese officials just prior to the first round of balloting.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad met with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Lebanese Army Commander Michel Suleiman on Friday, Hariri on Sunday and Prime Minister Salim Hoss and Hizbullah Secretary-General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah on Monday. They were to be followed by other notable Lebanese politicians.

The move was seen as an attempt to curb the heightened tension between opposition figures and government officials during the weeks that preceded the elections.

One important development to note is the apparent lack of interference by the government on election day. For weeks prior to the elections, opposition figures and observers continued to express fear of rigged elections.

Murr on Monday described the "transparent and honest" election process as a victory for the Lebanese state. As one observer noted, government, and subsequently Syrian, interference occurred mainly during the process of forming electoral lists rather than during voting or ballot counting on election day.

"This appears to indicate a new Syrian strategy toward Lebanon. Bashar Al-Assad wants to find out who is strong in various areas, in order to know how to deal with them in the next four years," Marlin Dick, an expert in post-war Lebanese elections, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Figures like Zaher Khatib, a long-standing opposition voice in the legislature who has been a deputy since 1972, did not win a seat despite his good relations with Syria. "The same goes for Elie Hobeika, who has maintained strong Syrian ties in the post-Taif regime," Dick said referring to the Taif accord ending the civil war in 1991. Hobeika is a prominent member of the right-wing Christian Phalangist Party

The surprises that emerged following Sunday's polls came as a result of the strongly-criticised list-making procedure, which, according to the results, served the interests of the opposition instead of consolidating the current administration.

As one observer noted, the considerable success of opposition figures proved that artificial coalitions between contenders on the basis of purely electoral goals have little chance of success.

Alliances, such as the unpublicised one between Hobeika and Hizbullah, were neither convincing nor appealing to voters. Hizbullah's under-the-table deal with Hobeika aimed at securing a seat for their candidate, Ali Ammar, for the Baabda district. One reason Ammar lost his seat during the 1996 elections was the lack of electoral support from Hobeika, who also runs in the same district.

While Hobeika lost, Ammar managed to win although he scored the lowest total among victorious candidates. According to an observer who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, Ammar won because he was strongly supported by the Lahoud administration. The same observer also conceded that the victory was due in part to the clout of Hizbullah voters in Baabda, which includes Beirut's southern suburbs -- a Hizbullah stronghold.

The legacy of political factions in the civil war makes the sudden alliances between former enemies, alleged to be on the basis of shared political visions, seem dubious to many voters.

This would seem to be what motivated voters in a number of districts to cross out some of the recently added names on lists they support. Hence supporters of Hobeika and Hizbullah crossed out many of the other candidates.

In the Metn district, a region dominated by Murr, there were yet more surprises. The success of both Jemayel and Metn MP Nassib Lahoud came at the expense of the list of the figure seen as closest to the president -- Murr.

"Jemayel generated many votes from everyone opposed to Murr, whose abrasive style as interior minister fed some of the anti-government sentiment," analyst Dick said.

Druze women
Election fever swept Beirut and northern Lebanon last week. From top: Druze women cast their ballots in Aley, Mount Lebanon;on the outskirts of Beirut, supporters of the Amal movment and car with posters promoting Hizbullah
(photo: AP)
Other overwhelming victories include those of Agriculture Minister Suleiman Franjieh Jr and Public Works and Transportation Minister Najib Mikati in the North district.

"Mikati is seen as a candidate for the post of prime minister although some still believe it's too early for him," Dick added.

He said that the resounding victory for the ticket led by Franjieh -- which took 14 out of 17 seats -- was not particularly welcomed by the current administration as the agriculture minister is regarded as a challenger to Lahoud for the presidency in 2005 and Mikati as a rival for the premiership with Hoss. For his part, Hoss openly expressed support for former Premier Omar Karami, who co-led the North's other leading ticket.

The success of many opposition figures has encouraged voters to turn up for the final stage of elections on 3 September. For the general public the results seemed to counter conventional wisdom that participating in the polls in pointless.

The last stage of the elections will see a battle in Beirut, where former premier Hariri is fielding candidates in all three of the capital's districts. Challenging Hariri are Sunni politician Tammam Salam in one district and Hoss in another. While relatively little is at stake in areas like Zahle and the Western Bekaa, the coalition between Hizbullah and Amal and other Syrian allies in the South and the Baalbek-Hermel district provide next Sunday's other main political contest.

Hizbullah is seeking to regain the 12-seat bloc it won in the 1992-1996 parliament, while Amal leader and Parliament Speaker, Berri, wants to ensure he will have enough support to return as speaker.

Uneasy bedfellows

By Zeina Khodr

United in their criticism of Syrian involvement in Lebanon's internal affairs, Druze and Christians are forging alliances occasioned by elections in northern Lebanon. Much of the impetus for these alliances was generated by Walid Jumblatt, the head of the Progressive Socialist Party, who is back in the headlines following a successful day at the polls for his party in last Sunday's first of two phases of parliamentary elections.

Having won 18 seats out of the 60 up for grabs in the first phase, Jumblatt's party is expected to wield considerable influence in the 128-member parliament. Assessing the performance of the Progressive Socialist Party, Nizar Hamze, a political analyst, told Al-Ahram Weekly: "Jumblatt will be a force to be reckoned with both internally and externally. Syria will have to take note of his victory."

Damascus effectively controls Lebanon's internal affairs with some 35,000 troops stationed throughout two-thirds of the country's territory.

In the run-up to Sunday's polls in Mount Lebanon and the governorates in northern Lebanon, Jumblatt, a Druze community leader, was outspoken in his criticism of the government and its close ties with Damascus. "I am not against Syria but I am calling for greater balance in Lebanese-Syrian relations. I do not understand why Syrian officers are summoning mayors and notables to ask them to vote for my opponents," Jumblatt said only days before polling. "I also warn [President Emile] Lahoud not to militarise the government."

The Druze leader has of late made considerable efforts to reach out to his Christian compatriots. Jumblatt has made overtures to the Maronite Catholic Patriarchate which represents the largest Christian group in Lebanon.

Jumblatt also has opened talks with Christian political parties -- the leaders of which were his enemies during the 1975-1990 civil war -- with the aim of working towards reconciliation. Among those he met with were leaders like Dory Chamoun, the head of the opposition National Liberal Party.

A day before Sunday's polling, Jumblatt symbolically ended a 15-year chapter of hostilities and bloodshed with the faction led by former President Amin Jemayel, who recently returned to Lebanon after 10 years in exile. The two former enemies, whose militias fought fierce battles during the civil war, signed a political coalition pact.

"Our reconciliation is one stage of a process that must extend throughout Lebanon," the two leaders said in a statement. "What happened in the past was bigger than both of us. It was a war by foreigners on Lebanese soil." They also promised to work for "an independent and democratic Lebanon and for balanced relations with Arab neighbours."

Jemayel headed the right-wing Christian Phalange party before assuming the presidency in the early 1980s. His son Pierre won a seat in the elections, effectively ousting Munir Hajj, current head of the Phalange. Observers believe Pierre Jemayel's victory may be the prelude for the return of the Phalangist leadership to the Jemayel family.

Explaining Jumblatt's moves, analyst Hamze said that he "wants a wider base in his constituency and Mount Lebanon is traditionally the homeland of the Druze and Christians." He added that "the Druze-Christian coalition has many dimensions. First of all, politically it means that Jumblatt does not want to base his future role solely on external factors, namely, Syrian support. There is also a mutual understanding today between the two communities [Druze and Christian] that they cannot live in isolation from each other due to demographic considerations."

Such a reconciliation, while politically expedient in the short-term, may endure for other reasons. Hassan Krayem, a political analyst said, "Of course Jumblatt's rapprochement with the Christians is significant and played a role in his victory." He added, however, that there is an understanding that internal stability in the country "cannot be achieved without the support of all communities."

A number of media analysts have said the first stage of the elections laid the groundwork for the third Syrian-controlled parliament in post-civil war Lebanon. The overwhelming majority of the winners, be they government opponents or loyalists, are supported by Syria.

But other analysts believe it is still too early to tell the extent to which Lebanese-Syrian ties will be affected by the victory of opposition candidates in the parliamentary elections. "There won't be any radical changes," Krayem suggested. However, he added that "relations will remain strong but not on the same course. Syria's hegemony over Lebanon cannot be justified any longer especially after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. So, I think the relationship will be established on new grounds."

Also supporting national dialogue on the issue of the Syrian presence in Lebanon was an opposition leader, living in exile in France. Former Army Chief Michel Aoun told the Beirut daily An-Nahar that all parties concerned must form a national committee to discuss the withdrawal of Syrians from Lebanon. "I call on [former Minister] Albert Moukhaiber, Jumblatt and former deputy Najah Wakim to participate in such a dialogue, to be held either in Beirut or in Paris," he said.

The three individuals Aoun mentions recently called for a timetable to be put forward for a Syrian withdrawal. Moukhaiber, Syria's most outspoken Lebanese critic, won a seat in the upper Metn province but Wakim withdrew his candidacy only a week before the elections partly in protest against what he called "foreign intervention."

But hard-line supporters of Syria have defended Damascus' role in Lebanon. "Syria wants Lebanon to be strong because its strength reflects positively on Syria itself," House Speaker Nabih Berri said. "Only the president of the republic, the cabinet and parliament decide when it is appropriate to ask Syrian troops to leave Lebanon," he added

The final make-up of the parliament will be determined by the second phase of the elections scheduled for 3 September.

Related stories:
Lebanese politics "revive" at fever pitch 24 - 30 August 2000


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