Preparations for Lebanon polls gather steam

BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanon began the countdown for legislative polls, with 51 candidates, including the son of slain former premier Rafiq Hariri, competing for 19 seats in Beirut in the first phase of the vote, the interior ministry said.

The vote in Beirut’s three districts will be held on May 29, and will continue over the rest of the country on the following three Sundays to choose a 128-seat parliament — the first since a Syrian troop pullout last month ended 29 years of domination.

Individual candidates in Beirut had until midnight Friday to register and political party leaders are now expected to announce their electoral lists following consultations.

The anti-Syrian opposition has been fractured amid last-minute bickering over the constituency boundaries for the elections. Opposition leaders agreed Thursday to draw up common lists of candidates for the elections.

Christians, led by the head of the Maronite Church, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, have flatly rejected the poll being based on a Syrian-tailored 2000 electoral law, which they say favours Muslims and would return a pro-Syrian parliament.

“The Lebanese are fighting amongst themselves, ignoring that if this bickering goes on it will prompt foreign intervention in the country,” political commentator Faisal Salman told Hariri’s Future television Saturday.

Meanwhile, the UN’s envoy for Lebanon, Terje Roed-Larsen, sent Sfeir a message “focusing on the importance of holding elections on time”, UN spokesman Nejib Friji told AFP.

French ambassador Bernard Emie issued a similar call following talks with pro-Syrian parliament speaker Nabih Berri, also insisting on the need to preserve national unity and hold representative polls.

“It is the responsibility of this country’s national and political leaders to guarantee national cohesion and all efforts should be made to find solutions” to ensure fair representation in parliament, he said in a statement.

The international community fears that a delay in the polls would create a political vacuum in the aftermath of the Syrian troop pullout.

The Lebanese government meanwhile signed a memorandum of understanding with the
European Commission paving the way for a 100-strong team of EU observers to monitor the polls, officials said.

An opposition source said that Saad Hariri, 35, will consult with other members of the opposition to decide whom he will choose to represent the Maronite Christians.

He is expected to choose either Solange Gemayel, the widow of slain former president and ex-Christian warlord Bashir Gemayel, or Hariri MP Ghattas Khoury, the source said.

Berri, meanwhile, announced a single candidates’ list for his Amal faction and Hezbollah for the two constituencies that make up Lebanon’s Shiite southern heartland, and which will be voted on later.

The list includes 23 candidates who are all expected to win seats.

Largely marginalised on the Lebanese political scene since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, the Christians have been fighting an as-yet unsuccessful battle to revise the 2000 law, which divides Lebanon into 14 large, multi-member constituencies.

Christian voters are a minority in nine of these constituencies, in the south and the Bekaa Valley.

The Maronite Church has charged that the law is unfair because it allows only 15 Christian MPs to be elected by Christian voters, while 49 others would be elected by Muslims, and is therefore not representative of their community.

According to the interior ministry, a little over three million Lebanese will be able to cast their vote in the crucial polls, with 42 percent of them Christians and the rest Muslims.