Money ranks higher than democracy in Lebanese polls

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The Independent Online

He has the largest election posters - up to 60 feet high - and his are the only ones without a name. But with those eyebrows, that moustache, the familiar suit, billionaire Rafiq Hariri doesn't need a name. He looks down on the people of Beirut from 10,000 hoardings, big brother with a hint of a proprietory smile; like a cat that swallowed a canary - and isn't sorry.

He has the largest election posters - up to 60 feet high - and his are the only ones without a name. But with those eyebrows, that moustache, the familiar suit, billionaire Rafiq Hariri doesn't need a name. He looks down on the people of Beirut from 10,000 hoardings, big brother with a hint of a proprietory smile; like a cat that swallowed a canary - and isn't sorry.

Mr Hariri would like to be prime minister again, to shake off the smears of corruption that adhered to former functionaries, to press ahead with the rebuilding of Beirut that he began in the early 1990s or - in the eyes of his detractors - to run up Lebanon's national debt of $20bn ($14bn) yet again in favour of his own building projects. "This man is rumoured to have spent $200m on the elections," an enemy sneered. Rubbish, says Hariri. He's just popular.

So what happened at the American University of Beirut last week was somehow instructive. Hariri arrived to open a new business faculty; he has spent $23m on various programmes and the new faculty - surprise, surprise - bears his name. Student supporters of Najah Wakim - an MP who is refusing to stand in this month's elections, partly in protest at Syria's continued military presence in Lebanon - began shouting at Hariri. "Our university is not for sale," they chorused. "Zionist," shouted one. "Thief," cried another. Mr Hariri smiled and pointed to them. "That's my country for you," he said.

Or is it? Mr Hariri's principal opponent in the election - the first round of which is held today in Beirut and the north of Lebanon - is the incumbent prime minister, Selim Hoss, one of the most honest politicians in the country but also - according to some - one of the most boring. Hariri accuses Hoss's dull performance as responsible for the economic recession that has hit Lebanon since the present government took office in 1998. The president, ex-General Emile Lahoud, is rumoured to have said privately that he will never accept Hariri as his prime minister. If true, this means that the Syrians don't want Hariri to be prime minister.

And therein lies a tale. For despite the 589 pro- and anti-government candidates standing for the 128 seats in Lebanon's national assembly, every one of them is pro-Syrian. The government is pro-Syrian. The opposition is pro-Syrian. Syria's 21,000 troops in Lebanon - still here to "protect" the country after the last Israeli soldiers have left - are not a proper subject for debate, it seems. The Catholic Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, has called for a Syrian withdrawal - because, he hastened to add meekly, "of the friendship and co-operation that exists between Syria and Lebanon".

But Sfeir, once described by a visiting Arab diplomat as "a country parson", has no following among Muslims, and Christian calls for a boycott of the poll is not going to influence most of Lebanon's 2.75 million voters. Candidates are keeping to economic issues. The Hizbollah has its own lists in the elections but will not take issue with its former Syrian supporters. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah chairman, confined his speeches to a demand that voters should not accept bribes. "There are people selling their votes for $100," he said. "I say to these people: you are selling your country."

There are those who will claim that Lebanon has always sold its soul. And there are those who say that the sectarian system under which Lebanon is governed makes any real democracy impossible. Since each religious group is allotted only a certain number of seats in parliament, voters are faced with a bewildering list of candidates and are allowed to vote for only a limited number of the same religion. If, for example, there are only six Muslim Sunni seats in one constituency, voters cannot vote for eight Sunni candidates; they can vote for six Sunnis and then choose a candidate of another religion on the same list.

Four years ago, it's said that Syrian vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam was involved in drawing up Lebanon's electoral lists. Under Syria's new president, Bachar Assad, the hand of Damascus is lighter. But General Ghazi Kenaan, head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, visited some of the leading candidates last week for a friendly chat. He wants to keep the elections calm. He wants security. But does he want Mr Hariri to win?

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