|Hariri makes clean sweep in Beirut polls|
|But victory marred by lowest election turnout in years
Lebanon's Saad Hariri, the son of the country's assassinated former Premier, made a clean sweep in the first stage of the country's elections according to preliminary results.
But the start of Lebanon's first free elections in more than 30 years was marred by a very low voter turnout of just 28 percent, the smallest participation in an election 13 years.
Yesterday's voter apathy is in stark contrast to the euphoric scenes earlier this year when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets following the murder of Rafik Hariri in a show of unity to oppose Syria and Lebanon's pro Damascus government.
The Beirut polls have still to be followed by other districts over the next four week-ends and it remains to be seen if yesterday's turnout represents a blip because Hariri was virtually assured of victory, or whether it will be repeated across the country.
In Christian areas, turnout was even less, hitting a low of 11 and 10 percent in some areas. Prior to the election Christian opposition politicians had criticized the legal framework for the polls, insisting it failed to properly represent Christian voters.
Hariri's bloc had already secured more than half of the Beirut districts' 19 seats before polling day as other candidates withdrew as it became certain Hariri would win the seats. Speaking last night, Hariri said: "This is a victory for Rafik Hariri. The blood of Rafik Hariri was not shed in vain."
He added: "Today is the victory of democracy that they tried to violate."
Hariri failed to mention the low turnout. But Michel Aoun, leader of the largely Christian Free Patriotic Movement, said voter apathy meant Hariri "failed in the elections."
Although he is fielding candidates in other districts, Aoun urged Beirutis to boycott yesterday's poll and hundreds of FPM supporters clad in orange, toured the capital urging voters "not to waste their votes."
The low turnout was widely blamed on the unfair electoral law, which was drawn up in 2000 when Syrian control of Lebanon was at its peak and was widely seen as favoring pro Syrian political groupings.
Despite last month's withdrawal of Syrian troops, Parliament failed to adopt a new law.
Reflecting on the low turnout Prime Minister Najib Mikati said: "These elections are free, honest and transparent, but they are not fair. We are well aware that the electoral law is not fair, but it was not our responsibility to change it. The Parliament had four years and 10 months come-up with a new electoral law and it didn't. So we were forced to organize the elections under this law."
Mikati, who was appointed two months ago to lead the country into free elections said his Cabinet had "promised and delivered," by abstaining from running for the polls and holding the elections on time.
No major violations were recorded, but in rare cases, voters were unable to vote because their names did not appear on the voters lists.
The polls were held under international supervision for the first time with over 100 European Union and United Nations observers at the polling stations.
Chief EU observer Jose Ignacio Salafranca Sanchez-Neyra said yesterday's elections were a celebration of democracy.
"Today, the only winner is Lebanon," he told reporters outside a polling station."
The country's largest Armenian political party, Tashnag, also called for a boycott, after it had decided not to field candidates after Hariri had allied with its rival Ramgavar party.
Hariri and his allies had urged voters to turn out in high numbers.
About 420,000 voters are registered in Beirut. The capital's 19 seats are divided as follows: Six Sunni Muslims, three Armenian Orthodox, two Greek Orthodox, two Shiite Muslims, one Druze, one Maronite Catholic, one Armenian Catholic, one Greek Catholic, one Protestant and one for minorities.
Meanwhile outside Beirut, two more candidates won uncontested seats, this time in the Chouf area, in Mount Lebanon, where elections will take place on June 12.
On Saturday, the deadline for submitting candidacies in Mount Lebanon, the Interior Ministry announced that Druze candidates Walid Jumblatt and Marwan Hamade effectively became MPs because there were no challengers to the same seats. A total of 17 MPs have already won uncontested in the entire country.
Beirut,05 30 2005
The Daily Star