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FOR LIBERTY, PROSPERITY, FRATERNITY?

With the battering the Lebanese government took in the recent parliamentary elections, President Emile Lahoud is faced with the prospect of accepting his sworn enemy, Mr Hariri, as primed minister. Mariam Shahin reports from Beirut

The recent Lebanese parliamentary elections, the most vivacious in post-war history, have proved the most accurate measure of the mood prevailing in the small Arab Mediterranean nation.

It became clear the policies of inaction, or, some might say, no action, favoured by the Emile Lahoud-Saleem Al Hoss coalition were rejected outright by the people, who voted all but six cabinet ministers out of office. The fight against corruption and an abstention from public spending by the ousted government may have been a move to keep morality in place and reduce public debt, but dealing with the more tangible effects of falling standards of living left the people singularly unconcerned with moral issues and debt.

"We want investment, we want public spending, we want reconstruction in Beirut, the south and everywhere else. A government that has no money, will not borrow and will not spend, can't deliver on these essentials," is how one Beirut voter summed up the situation.

The continued presence of 35,000 Syrian troops, the liberation of the southern zone, once occupied by Israel, and the slow but sure re-emergence of Lebanon as a regional economic player, all influenced how people voted or didn't vote. But more than any other consideration, the people voted for action and for the candidates committed to delivering it, in some cases discarding their feudalist, sectarian and regional loyalties to do so.

THE WINNERS

All things considered, there were three winners in the two-round election which ousted the mild-mannered Prime Minister Saleem Al Hoss. First and most boisterously there was of course Rafiq Hariri, the billionaire tycoon rumoured to have spent millions of pounds boosting his popularity, including dishing out hundreds of university scholarships to the declining Lebanese middle class. Hariri represents big spending, international and regional investment, enormous debt accumulation and to some degree the Arab world. The other two winners, namely Walid Jumblatt's coalition and Hizbullah, are singularly Lebanese in character. Despite the fact the latter has close connections to Iran, the aims of both groups are confined to the boundaries of Lebanon.

Rafiq Hariri is the superman under whose last administration Lebanon went LEB14 billion [pounds sterling] into debt. Undeterred, the Lebanese electorate awarded him a landslide victory in the two rounds of elections -- he and his supporters scooped up 18 out of 19 Beirut seats -- which would, in almost any other country, guarantee him the premiership. By some estimates 92 of the 128 seats went to Hariri supporters.

Saleem Al Hoss, the incumbent prime minister, who also lost his seat as a Beirut parliamentarian, conceded defeat, claiming his opponents had spent more money on the Lebanese elections than had been spent on the American presidential race. Hariri is said to have spent LEB125 million [pounds sterling], while the Hoss campaign spent some LEB 100,000 [pounds sterling].

It is common knowledge that there is no love lost for Hariri on the part of ex-General Lahoud or Mr Hoss, who has spoken out against the corruption with which, he claims, Mr Hariri contaminated his previous government.

On a more personal level Mr Lahoud is unhappy with Mr Hariri's close friendships with world leaders, including President Chirac of France and the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. Many people believe that in a Lahoud-Hariri government, the former would be completely overshadowed by the latter.

"I think Hariri might be alright if this time he keeps his `animal farm' under control," said one banker, referring to Mr Hariri's corrupt entourage, "and tries to include President Lahoud in his `social calendar'".

Another factor in determining Hariri's success in becoming prime minister again, is the prevailing mood in Damascus. Many observers believe Syria will allow Mr Hariri to become prime minister if he keeps his nose out of international affairs, but may well veto his candidature if he does not.

His grandiose plans to rebuild Beirut have run up international debts that exceed 140 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. He gambled on a quick return on a Middle East peace, which never took off. Consequently Lebanon was deprived of much international and expatriate investment. Now the Israelis are gone, Lebanon could again be seen as an island of tranquillity, offering services and scenery not available elsewhere in the region.

HIZBULLAH

The military/political victory of Hizbullah in the formerly Israeli-occupied south of the country, gave the group, which ran as part of the `Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc', a resounding victory. Even the Christians of the south voted for the Muslim fundamentalist party. The socio-economic platform the party ran on was based on achievements already accomplished, thus the electorate voted for `doers' rather than `talkers'. Hizbullah, in some ways like Hariri, is enthusiastic about development work. It has rebuilt and set up infrastructures in areas of desperate need. But Hizbullah, unlike Hariri, steers well clear of any allegations of corruption and has gained admiration and respect among all sectors of society for its achievements.

Hizbullah and its rivals Amal joined forces in the south during the elections to produce an unbeatable list headed by Amal chief and House Speaker Nabih Berri, to represent the country's 1.2 million Shiites. The Shia of Lebanon are not only the largest of its 18 religious denominations, but also the poorest and most overlooked by the government. The list swept all 23 seats in the southern Nabatieh district. Both Iran and Damascus support Amal and pushed for the joint ticket, fearing Hizbullah would destroy Amal at the polls.

Hizbullah's popularity with Christian and Shiite voters was substantially higher than that of Amal, receiving almost 40,000 more votes per candidate

Hizbullah won 12 seats nationwide in the next House, three more than in the last parliament. The bloc now includes nine party members and three allies. Loyalty to the Resistance ran on two issues: dealing with the repercussions of withdrawal and finding solutions to ease the social and economic crisis.

DRUZE

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who picked up 16 of the 19 seats in his constituency, ousting Syrian loyalist Elie Hobeika, was another election success story.

Jumblatt and his nominees won in his Chouf fiefdom and in the neighbouring Aley-Baabda constituency, in part because fierce government attacks on him backfired and created a sympathy vote in his favour. Jumblatt openly supports both Hariri and the Hizbullah movement and urged people outside his own constituency to vote for one or the other. During the second round of elections, Jumblatt called on Druze voters in southern Lebanon to support Hizbullah candidates as opposed to those of Amal.

He also drew alliances with Pierre Gemayel, son of former President Amin Gemayel, and Nassib Lahoud, a dissident cousin of President Emile Lahoud, who also turned out to be among the opposition winners. He confirmed his position regarding Syria by calling for the re-inclusion of two anti-Syrian Christian leaders into the political arena of Lebanon.

THE KEEPERS

Some 589 pro - and anti-government candidates ran for the 128 seats in Lebanon's National Assembly. A few, very few, openly criticised Syria's role in

Lebanon, while the majority, either supported Syria or did not make it an election issue.

In the Christian Metn mountain area, MP Nassib Lahoud succeeded in getting re-elected against a coalition brokered by pro-Syrian Interior Minister Michel Mutt, while calling for a "clean-up of Lebanese-Syrian relations". Another candidate, Albert Mukheiber, who went as far as calling openly for an "end to Syrian occupation", was also elected.

Syria's 35,000 troops in Lebanon are not generally popular, but most people believe had it not been for Syrian intervention in the last round of the civil war, Lebanon would still be tearing itself asunder. The relationship between the two is complex and despite much discussion of the pros and cons of the Syrian presence in the Lebanese press, the real issues in this election were much more economic than they were political.

The Syrian presence is not welcome, but it is very much accepted as the lesser of two evils. "We, the Lebanese, have proved we can easily be influenced to hate each other and kill each other," said Maher Rashid, 40, a Beirut merchant who stayed in the country throughout the years of civil war. "For the moment, we still need Syria to keep us united. If Syria leaves now we will start with our sectarianism once again ... The time is not right for Syria to leave ... yet."

Several Christian parties, including one headed by Danny Chamoun, son of the late Lebanese warlord and former president Camille Chamoun, boycotted the elections in protest against continued Syrian military presence in Lebanon. But in the final analysis, such actions ensured they lost more than they gained, isolating their constituencies from participating in the rebuilding of Lebanon at this critical stage. The Christian candidates who participated in the electoral process will from now on represent Christian interests in public life while the likes of Chamoun will simply represent `special interests'.

THE FUTURE

At the beginning of the summer, political pundits in Lebanon were writing that President Lahoud was hoping for a two-thirds majority in parliament so that the constitution could be amended to extend his six-year term, which expires in 2004.

Instead, with the battering the government took in the parliamentary elections, he is faced with the prospect of accepting his sworn enemy, Mr Hariri, as prime minister.

There are of course, other choices, maybe none of whom could be classed as the people's choice, but choices nevertheless. The other contenders for Lebanon's premiership include Najib Mikati, the elected Tripoli MP and a close friend of President Bashar Assad of Syria; the loyally pro-Syrian prosecutor general; or the chairman of the Beirut Chamber of Commerce, Adnan Kassar; and Adnan Adoum, who has heavily invested in Syria's real estate and banking concerns. President Lahoud could ask any one of these to become prime minister of Lebanon and in all likelihood Syria would approve. But would anyone else?
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Author:Shahin, Mariam
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Oct 1, 2000
Words:1687
Previous Article:AFTER MUBARAK.
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