Lebanon’s parliamentary polls kick off with three uncontested seats in Beirut

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s parliamentary elections kicked off ahead of schedule over the weekend as three uncontested seats in Beirut returned Druze, Shiite and Maronite MPs ahead of official polls which begin in less than two weeks.

Solange Gemayel, the widow of slain president and Christian warlord Bashir Gemayel, was given  Beirut’s only Maronite Christian seat after sitting MP Ghattas Khoury, a member of the parliamentary bloc of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, withdrew to allow her to join the candidate list of Hariri’s son, Saad.

The third Maronite candidate, Beirut municipal council member Georges Tyan, also withdrew yesterday morning leaving Gemayel the sole candidate.

Gemayel’s seat is the third Beirut seat to be decided without a vote. Two other Hariri bloc candidates, Shiite Ghazi Yussef and Druze Ghazi Aridi also took their seats on the basis they were the only candidates.

Khoury said he withdrew “to preserve unity within opposition ranks and to help Saad Hariri preserve the Islamic-Christian unity of Beirut as did Rafik Hariri.”

The development is a damage-control move by Lebanon’s opposition which last week belatedly agreed to include candidates which could be blocked from winning the race under the 2000 election law, which has been criticized for failing to properly represent the country’s Christians and favoring pro-Syrian loyalist MPS.

The opposition remains split over whether this month’s elections should take place as scheduled, with many demanding the election law, which was tailored at a time when Syrian influence in Lebanon’s politics was pervasive, be scrapped or amended.

But Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who must recall Parliament for any change in the law to take place, has so far resisted calls to amend this month’s electoral framework.

Speaking at the weekend he said: “After the elections have been called Parliament takes on a caretaker role. For me, any amendment to the law or new election law falls outside this.”  

Berri conceded the country’s current election law was faulty and unjust, but insisted “it was the best possible under the circumstances.”

Meanwhile Berri announced a single candidates’ list for his Amal faction and Hizbullah for the two constituencies that make up the Shiite southern heartland, where polls are scheduled for the first Sunday in June.

Berri listed Bahiya Hariri and Osama Saad from Saida but it is not yet known whether the two candidates are running independently as Hariri had announced on earlier occasions she would. 

Independent candidates and representatives of less powerful political parties in the South, especially in Jezzine, rejected the practices that excluded them from participating in the race and claim the results are already known before the polls occur.

Berri defended his “Resistance and Development” election ticket, saying it represents the South and southern families.

The leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, General Michel Aoun, announced the formation of a special electoral committee with the task of “drawing the tactics and strategy of the FPM’s election campaign.”

Aoun failed to announce which areas his party will run in and again declined to give details on who his potential electoral allies might be.

But he launched a fresh attack on slain ex-Premier Hariri’s political heirs and opposition leader Walid Jumblatt for striking an alleged deal with Hizbullah and Speaker Berri “to rule Lebanon,” branding them a “subversive tsunami.” 

Speaking in an interview aired by the LBCI Saturday night Aoun said: “I have been accused of being a ‘returning tsunami,’ but I say we are the positive tsunami.”

Christians, who account for roughly between 35-40 percent of the population insist the 2000 election law sets voting districts in a way favoring Muslim voters and Muslim candidates’ lists.

Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir has called it a “violation” of Lebanon’s coexistence. But he pointedly stepped back calls for a Christian boycott of the elections yesterday, saying instead that Christians should “act each in their district to define their options and minimize the damage.” 

The vote in Beirut’s three districts will be held on May 29, with 51 candidates signed up to contest 19 seats and will continue over the rest of the country on the following three Sundays to choose a 128-seat Parliament.

Both the U.S. and France have insisted the elections take place on schedule, but Aoun said neither country should be apprehensive about a two or three-week delay of the elections to promulgate a fair electoral law.