Empty Polling Stations in Beirut?s Armenian Districts Reflect Dissent

BEIRUT (Combined Sources)–Heeding the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s (ARF) call to boycott the Beirut district elections–the majority of Armenia’s stayed home in Sunday’s first stage of the staggered election to the 128-member assembly.

In heavily Armenian populated areas such as Ashrafieh–the effects of the boycott were apparent with only 17 percent voter turnout.

Overall low voter turnout–only 28 percent of 420,000 eligible voters casting ballots–seemed to indicate that many people in Beirut stayed away because Saad Al Hariri’s victory seemed a foregone conclusion–with nine of the 19 seats falling unopposed to his bloc even before the vote.

Hariri–the son and political heir of former slain Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri–angered Armenia’s when he opted to exclude ARF candidates from his electoral list for vacant Armenian seats in Beirut’s three constituencies. Hariri instead proposed Armenia’s who do not have the backing of the majority Armenian population–namely ARF supporters. The party called for the boycott–saying that Hariri’s "list ignores those forces that hold actual political weight in Beirut."

Low voter turnout was also felt in Christian districts–in protest of the electoral law which they claim does not allow for true representation.

Hani Hammud–editor-in-chief of the Hariri-owned Al Mustaqbal daily–said–"Working toward national unity after the elections would be achieved with the drafting of a new electoral law to replace the current one which was drafted by the [Lebanese] authorities and the services–under Syria’s tutelage."

"The electoral law has rightfully frustrated many Lebanese–mainly the Christians," he acknowledged.

"The first mission of Saad Hariri and his allies [in the opposition] will be to start dialogue for a new electoral law–following a compromise with all parties," Hammud said.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan–nevertheless–praised the "democratic conduct" of the first round of voting.

"These elections constitute a major opportunity for the Lebanese people to shape their own future–to strengthen their political institutions and to restore their full sovereignty," he said in a statement.

Results announced by Interior Minister Hassan Sabei showed Hariri–a Sunni Muslim–won 39,500 of 42,000 votes cast in his constituency–the highest number in any of the 10 contested seats in the mainly Sunni Lebanese capital.

A pro-Syrian Shiite Hezbollah candidate on Hariri’s slate was the second highest vote-getter with 32,000.

Beirut had a 34 percent turnout in 2000–when Hariri’s father–then cooperating with Syria–also swept the board.

For the first time–foreign observers monitored the polls–with a team of more than 100 led by the European Union–who announced the first round of elections were "open and transparent."

Political analyst Ghassan Ezzeh said: "I do not think we can speak about free and democratic elections because there was no real electoral battle."

But he said that "even if the new parliament will not have real popular representation–world powers [the [US and France] have already given it legitimacy–and this is enough."

As soon as Saad claimed victory late on Sunday–he called for national reconciliation in a country still bearing the scars of the 15-year civil war and extended an open hand to all factions who helped the campaign that led to the Syrian pullout.

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