Premiership in play
North Lebanon is the key battleground from which will emerge the next Lebanese prime minister, writes Omayma Abdel-Latif
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Supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement hold a picture of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah
"If you vote for Suleiman Frangieh [a Christian opposition former minister] you will be voting for Ahmadinejad." Thus spoke Samir Geagea, one of Lebanon's former warlords and who leads the Lebanese Forces, a right wing group and member of the March 14 coalition. Using such scare tactics to sway voters in the northern parts of the country -- particularly the Christian electorate -- has become part and parcel of March 14 election campaigning.
In Tripoli, where candidates are contesting eight seats (five Sunnis, a Maronite, a Catholic and an Alawi), similar tactics are being employed. The election battle in Lebanon's second biggest city is significant since it will decide who will be the country's next prime minister. For the past four years, Tripoli has been the scene of sporadic sectarian violence that pitted Bab Al-Tebana, a poverty stricken Sunni dominated neighbourhood, against Jebel Mehsen, an Alawi dominated residential area. With election fever reaching boiling point, there are strong concerns over a possible eruption of violence during -- and perhaps after -- elections day.
March 14 is running a united list called "the solidarity list". It is the fruit of months of negotiations mainly between Saad Al-Hariri, head of the Future Movement and majority leader and Najib Miqati, former prime minister and one of Tripoli's richest tycoons. The list includes Mohamed Al-Safadi, Samir Al-Jisr, Mohamed Kabara, Robert Fadel, Ahmed Karami and Badr Wanus. The most controversial figure on the list is Samer Saada, the Phalange candidate. Saada moved his candidacy from Batroun, a predominantly Christian constituency, to Tripoli, which has a deeply rooted hostility to the Phalange from civil war days.
Miqati, who, following the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri, steered the country through one of its most difficult moments since the end of the civil war, is a premiership hopeful. He projects himself as a centrist figure that enjoys support among both the opposition and parliamentary majority. But premiership hopefuls also include Saad Al-Hariri himself, who does not hide his wish to take the top Sunni, and Al-Safadi as well.
The opposition, on the other hand, failed to come up with a united list. Candidates, who are running individually, include senior figures such as former prime minister Omar Karami and Jean Obeid, a former foreign minister running for the Maronite seat.
Islamists running include Sheikh Bilal Shaaban of the opposition's Islamic Action Front, Rami Durgham of Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya, and Hassan Al-Shahal of the Salafi movement. This election is marked by a change of heart among Salafis who enjoy a powerbase in Tripoli and Akkar. A group of Salafi sheikhs issued a fatwa allowing their followers to contest and vote in the election. Salafis feel a sense of betrayal by Al-Hariri who marginalised them and ignored early promises to have them represented on his list of candidates.
Opposition sources acknowledge the challenge of the March 14 list. First, the amount of money spent on the elections by March 14 is vast given that three billionaires are in contest. In the 2005 election, it was estimated that in the north of Lebanon alone more than $50 million was spent on election campaigning. Now, the opposition and majority exchange accusations of spending millions in vote buying. Opposition candidates say Saudi Arabia has allocated millions of dollars for March 14 candidates. But on the majority side, it is "Iranian funds" that are being dispensed by the opposition. Both claims are hard to validate.
Second, the influence of security services that play favours and attempt to sway voters from attending opposition rallies. One opposition candidate told Al-Ahram Weekly that officers in the Internal Security Forces contact their supporters and implicitly threaten them not to attend opposition rallies.
A third way of influencing the election outcome is through the heads of municipalities and senior members of prominent families, some of who enjoy a huge voting power. For example, Al-Merebi family in Akkar commands 17,000 votes. Some heads of municipalities deliberately withhold newly released ID cards -- with which the Lebanese will vote in this election -- if they know that the card bearer is not toeing their political line.
Meanwhile, polls suggest that voters in Tripoli and Akkar will not stick to an intact March 8 list. Rather, they will make their own lists that would include both opposition and majority figures. Candidates like Omar Karami, and Alawi candidates Rifaat Eid and Jean Obeid, are the most likely to get the majority of votes, alongside Miqati, Al-Jisr and Safadi. Opposition candidates will try to influence swing voters, estimated in Tripoli at 20,000 out of the 80,000 expected voters.
The north is one of the most deprived regions in Lebanon. It has the highest national poverty rate. Akkar alone holds 23.7 per cent of Lebanon's poorest population. The conspicuous absence of the Lebanese state is translated to a lack of basic services such as electricity and clean drinking water.
"We only have contact with the Lebanese state through taxation and the police officer who threatens to cut off electricity or water because we cannot afford to pay," said one resident in Tripoli. Electoral promises of developing Tripoli and the neighbouring areas of Dennyia, Menyia and Akkar have traditionally gone unmet. Tripoli's economic lifeline was also hard hit after the Nahr Al-Bared battle in the summer of 2007. Hence money counts and vote buying is in full swing. In Akkar, for example, the price of one vote has reached $200.
The Syria factor is yet another important decider in Tripoli and Akkar. Despite the fact that Syria withdrew from Lebanon, it maintains influence through political parties and communities that make no secret of their political loyalty. These forces include the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, the Baath Party, the Alawite community in Tripoli and Akkar, as well as the Arab tribes of Wadi Khaled. "When people in this part of the country search for jobs they do not go to Beirut, they go to Syria, which is geographically closer to them than Beirut," said Mohamed Mohey, an opposition candidate in Akkar.