Lebanon's oasis of freedom turns into a mirage

Electors are backing Syria's friends, writes Robert Fisk

Beirut - General Mustapha Tlass had described Lebanon as "an oasis of freedom and democracy" in the Middle East. The general - Syrian minister of defence, no less, as well as an admirer of numerous Miss World title-holders and Princess Diana - was reassuring the head of Lebanon's newspaper editors' union of his faith in the Lebanese parliamentary elections. Better still, Syrian Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam publicly pledged that Syria, which has 22,000 troops in Lebanon, would not interfere in the election process. All the Lebanese had to do, it seemed, was to vote for the candidate of their choice.

Lebanon, it should be added, has never been anything so exotic as an oasis of democracy. Pre-war governments were regularly packed with stooges and the retainers of the country's leading families. When parliament was asked to elect a president back in 1970, the speaker's call for a fourth ballot, which might have kept old Sulieman Franjieh from the presidency, prompted Franjieh's bodyguards to threaten the speaker with sub-machine guns. When he called up the incumbent president for help, the worldly Charles Helou gave this advice to his parliamentary speaker: "My information authorises me to tell you that if you persist [in the fifth ballot] there will be no survivors among those present in parliament." Franjieh won.

So mourn not, readers, for Lebanese democracy. Oasis or otherwise, not much has changed here. Accusations of fraud, intimidation, bribery and electoral abuse are par for the course in Lebanon; and, half-way through the staggered six-week polling for the 128-seat parliament, the country's electors are already giving their votes to Syria's loyal friends and allies in the government.

Nasib Lahoud, the most authoritative figure in the Christian opposition - who was elected - has accused the Interior Minister, Michel Murr, of "threats and coercive measures" against the electorate, while Mr Murr, also elected in the allegedly flawed polling in the Mount Lebanon constituency, accused Mr Lahoud of buying votes; to be exact, just over pounds 79,000 worth. Mr Lahoud then called Mr Murr a "gangster" and a habitual briber.

"Democracy has been defeated," the daily An Nahar announced on its front page after the first round of elections, while the independent Lebanese Association for the Democracy of Elections complained of fake electoral lists, false identity cards and threats against newly-naturalised Lebanese citizens; Lebanese who had just acquired citizenship, it seems, were told they would lose it if they voted the wrong way.

Already, Fares Bouiez, the Foreign Minister, Druze ministers Walid Jumblatt and Marwan Hamadeh, the Electricity Minister Elie Hobeika and Mr Murr have been elected - all good chums of the Syrians. The Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, is sure to be elected this weekend in Beirut. Albert Mokhaibur, an ally of Mr Lahoud and a fierce opponent of Syria's presence in Lebanon, lost. And so, oddly enough, did at least one of Hizbollah's candidates. For the old militia war between the pro-Iranian Hizbollah and the equally Shia, but nationalist, Amal movement - both allies of Syria - has resurfaced in political form with the two would-be guerrilla movements at odds over who should represent the electors of southern Lebanon.

The parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, chairman of Amal, invited Hizbollah to join his list - knowing they would not accept - and wished God's mercy upon Hizbollah when they refused. The elections are therefore likely to end with as much ill will as when they started.

When candidates challenged a law which divided the Mount Lebanon governorate into six constituencies, while keeping the other four governorates as single constituencies - a device intended to secure election for the Druze leader Mr Jumblatt amid the predominantly Christian Mount Lebanon - the country's constitutional court ruled that the law would, "in the national interest", stand for this election only.

The Christians - typically, and tragically, the most divided community in Lebanon - were split over whether to boy-cott the poll. Christians living abroad, and supporters of former General Michel Aoun - the messianic army officer who declared war on Syria before slaughtering many of his own Christian countrymen, and who was driven out of the presi-dential palace in 1990 - urged a boycott. Mr Lahoud and his allies gave opposite advice.

Prime Minister Hariri, who loathes the Hizbollah, declared the elections a battle "between pragmatism and extremism", while the Hizbollah leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, insisted that his movement would "not join any government list anywhere in the country".

But it also pays to be young and handsome. In Tripoli this week, 34-year- old Misbah Ahdab, the local honorary consul of France, picked up more than 73,000 votes, outdistancing even the old family squire Omar Karameh. A bronzed Adonis amid a sea of silver-haired retainers, poll officers believe he was given the vote of almost every female elector in northern Lebanon. So this is what an oasis of democracy means.

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