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June 9, 2009
Lebanon reels from unexpected election results

Melani Cammett spoke with Worldfocus from Beirut during our online radio show on Lebanon’s election. She writes about election day and looks at how the results — an unexpected victory for the ruling pro-Western March 14 coalition — will play out domestically and abroad.

On election day in Lebanon, I visited multiple polling stations and attended election rallies and events organized by various parties.

The Future Movement’s pre-printed ballot for the Beirut III electoral district. The expansive font provides little space for voters to cross off candidate names and replace them with others. Photo: Melani Cammett

That morning, I started by accompanying a friend — I’ll call her “Mona” — to cast her ballot in predominantly Sunni Tarik el-Jedideh, a neighborhood in Beirut. As we approached the polling station, a rush of Future Movement [the party led by Saad Hariri that is a member of March 14] election workers appeared with lists of registered voters in the district. After obtaining Mona’s voter registration number, they handed her a pre-printed paper with the names of the Future Movement candidates in the Beirut III district and urged her to vote for the whole list without crossing off and replacing any names.

In Lebanon, there is no official ballot, enabling parties to print ballots that they distribute freely outside of polling stations. In addition, in this “open-list” system, voters have the right to cross off names of candidates [tashteeb] on a party list and replace them with the names of candidates running as independents or on other lists.

An avowed opponent of the sectarian political system — which allocates seats and other political and administrative offices by fixed quotas on a district-by-district basis — Mona waited for hours inside the crowded polling station to cast a blank ballot in order to express her opposition to the system. While she knew that her vote would not affect the results in this overwhelmingly pro-Hariri district, she, like others, felt that turning out to cast a null ballot was the most effective way to convey her opposition to the system and to its main protagonists.

Later, I visited a polling station in Haret Hreik, a municipality in the Southern Suburbs of Beirut known in the Western press as a “Hezbollah stronghold.” Outside of the precinct, representatives from the opposition parties, including the Christian FPM and Shi’i Amal Movement and Hezbollah, gave us pre-printed ballots with the names of the Opposition list candidates, while delegates from the March 14 coalition were nowhere to be found.

Election workers in Broumanna, Metn District. Photo: Melani Cammett

At around 6 p.m. — an hour before the polls were scheduled to close — we made a swing through the first and second Beirut districts, which could not have been more different. In Beirut I (district), where 91 percent of registered voters are Christians, competing March 8 and March 14 groups battled for control over the district’s five electoral seats reserved for Christians from various sects.

Meanwhile, in Beirut II, thanks to pre-election deals among party elites, candidates ran unopposed and, as a result, the district featured the lowest voter turnout in the country. As we drove by the precinct, party workers barely exerted themselves to throw pre-printed ballots into our open car windows, as they had done throughout the day in our visits to more competitive districts.

By this time, electoral precincts were preparing to shut down, polling companies were busy analyzing data from exit polls, and citizens across Lebanon were settling themselves in front of their television sets to watch the projected returns aired on local news channels. I decided to call it a day.

I awoke the next morning to discover the surprising news that the majority March 14 won by a significant margin with 71 seats — a 13-seat lead over the opposition. (Recall that most local polling companies had forecast at least a slim victory for the opposition.) Supporters celebrated throughout the day.

In Future Movement strongholds in West Beirut, Christian areas of Achrafieh with concentrations of Lebanese Forces and Kataeb supporters, and parts of Aley with many Druze backers of the March 14 coalition, I saw people dancing, singing, setting off fireworks, playing music, honking horns and celebrating. Leaders of the opposition parties were silent for most of the day, refraining from making statements about the unexpected results.

A Future Movement campaign billboard in Beirut: ‘[Vote] as it is [the full list], as long as the sky is blue.” Photo: Melani Cammett

In Lebanon’s complex political system, the end of the elections marks the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a long process of forming a new government, with bargaining both within and across the opposing coalitions over cabinet posts (and likely fractionalization within the main coalitions themselves).

The March 14 victory, however, does not give the majority unlimited license in the delicately calibrated Lebanese political system. With 57 out of 128 seats, the opposition retains well over the number of seats needed to block legislation on important issues (one-third plus one seat). Furthermore, although the FPM failed to garner as many seats as it hoped, it swept core Christian areas in Mount Lebanon, permitting Aoun to claim that he represents the majority of the Christian community.

On the international scale, the outcome of the elections has averted the feared confrontation between a Hezbollah-led government and the U.S. But Hezbollah and the FPM remain key players in the government and represent large components of Lebanese society.

At least rhetorically, leaders in the ruling majority have recognized this by expressing their commitment to a unity government. To help to avoid a potential impasse in Lebanese politics, international leaders will need to follow suit by emphasizing their commitment to working with all elements of the new government.

– Melani Cammett

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