Lebanese poll is divisive

THE FIRST ballot box to be brought into the Jounieh municipality last night should have contained the votes of up to 268 constituents. Just before 6pm, however, on a live television broadcast, the local electoral officer held up his empty box and pronounced the single word: 'None.' In the by-election which was supposed to prove that Lebanese Christians supported a national poll held under the auspices of a Syrian-backed government, the turn-out across the slopes of Kesrwan was somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent. So much for the legitimacy of the next Lebanese parliament.

But - since this is Lebanon - the story so far: in a three-part election held here in August and September, 123 members of the 128-seat Lebanese parliament were elected, the vast majority of them pro-Syrian candidates, including eight members of the pro-Iranian Hizbollah and four Sunni Muslim fundamentalist candidates. But in the Kesrwan region - an exclusively Christian Maronite district - the poll was delayed because not a single Christian would stand for election. After all, the Christian Maronite Patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, had described anyone prepared to stand for office as a 'false witness'. Lebanon, the Christians argued, could not elect a democratic assembly while under Syrian 'occupation'.

So yesterday's vote was a test of the legitimacy of the pro-Syrian government of President Elias Hrawi and the influence of Patriarch Sfeir. But who won? If 15 per cent of the Christian electorate voted, Patriarch Sfeir might persuade himself that the Maronites heeded his call. Yet since an estimated 40 per cent of the electoral roll was out of date - containing the names of dead constituents or of Lebanese who emigrated years ago - and since members of the security forces are unable to vote, the turn-out might reflect more than 30 per cent of the Christian community in Kesrwan.

That 24 Christian candidates stood for the five seats - they included President Hrawi's Maronite son-in-law Farez Boueiz, the former foreign minister - also constitutes a setback to those who claim that the Christians of Lebanon preferred to boycott the poll rather than participate in an election while 40,000 Syrian troops remain in the country.

The five members elected yesterday will take their seats in the new parliament on 16 October.

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