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French Version

Security tight for first phase of crucial Lebanon elections

Disabled voters made it through to cast their ballots despite no recognition from government and a lack of help at polling stations

On Sunday morning, Beirut resembled a giant barricade with security tight across the capital for the first phase of the four-round elections.

However, after four hours of voting, barely one in 10 voters had cast their ballot despite opposition calls for a high turnout. "For me, this day will concretize all what we demonstrated for on March 14 in Martyrs' Square," said Abu Ali, a campaign delegate for a voting poll in Mosseitebeh, "even if we do not agree on the current electoral law, even if we do not agree on the current electoral machinery, voting is the only way out for us to put an end to all this."

Abu Ali said: "Unfortunately," Beirutis were "unaware of this."

In the first election not under Syrian or Lebanese intelligence control and free from pressure on the voters' choice, many Beirutis - mainly Christians - felt reluctant to take part in the election process on Sunday.

"I'm not going to vote," said Elias Hajal. "What for? I'd rather go to the beach. We already know who has won and who hasn't, even before the election process started."

However, other voters described the current elections as "historical" and "mandatory for the winds of change to come."

"Now that the Syrians are gone, there is no pressure," said Kamal Badran, a 52-year-old butcher who voted for Saad Hariri's list.

Giant pictures of the slain former Premier Rafik Hariri with his son and random posters of independent candidates filled the streets of Beirut, with campaign banners reading "the truth," referring to the public demand to uncover the culprits behind Hariri's assassination, posted outside some polling stations.

However, disabled Lebanese who had to vote in other polling stations still had to face many obstacles, most notably the presence of numerous stairs in every polling station.

Disabled voters' access to polling stations was as hard as ever, despite an exemplary polling station set up for disabled voters in Makassed Harj High School in Beirut's first district.

"I had to be carried to the sixth floor to vote," said Rima Najjar, 36. "People were fighting over who would carry me up, but were much less enthusiastic about bringing me down later on."

Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa, when approached by a disabled woman demanding that the government rectify the situation for the 900 disabled eligible to vote in Beirut, said: "I wasn't aware of that presence."

Others, mainly members of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the Armenian Tachnag Party - both of whom boycotted the elections - roamed the streets of Beirut, especially Achrafieh, singing patriotic hymns of "freedom," carrying posters of General Michel Aoun and distributing leaflets reading "do not vote."

"What is taking place now are not 'elections,' they are merely 'nominations,'" said Paul Achkar, an FPM supporter, "everything has been planned in advance, they're only making us believe these elections are democratic. They're not."

Taking place a month after the last Syrian soldier left Lebanon, the polls were being staged under international supervision for the first time with over 100 European Union and UN observers on the ground.

White cars bearing large stickers with the logo of the EU and the words "international observers" were seen touring the streets of Beirut, checking the various polling stations.

The presence of other local volunteer observers, belonging to the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), was also a first for Lebanon.

"For the first time, we were granted permission by the Interior Ministry to access the polls and our observers were allowed in there, to closely follow up and monitor the elections process," said Ziyad Baroud, LADE's secretary general.

Nevertheless, some continued to complain at pressure being exerted on them not to vote.

"A man called me at home this morning asking me not to vote," said Abraham, a voter preferred not to give his last name, "and my neighbors were given false tickets featuring the names of candidate who have already won unopposed."

Ayman, a LADE volunteer, said this kind of fraud was not the responsibility of the observer teams.

"People know how to read and write, don't they?" he said, "so they can distinguish a legitimate ticket from an illicit one."

Beirut 30-05-2005
Jessy Chahine
The Daily Star

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