NEWS FEATURE: Lebanon's democracy "still has a long way to go"

Deutsche Presse-Agentur
May 31, 2005, Tuesday

18:37:49 Central European Time

Beirut -- Lebanon began the first democratic elections in 30 years
at the weekend without Syrian presence or direct intervention from
former powerbroker Damascus.

But the low turnout in what were being dismissed as the "unpopular
elections" showed that something was lacking in what was expected to
be a democratic event.

"There was no electoral battle, so we cannot really speak of free
and democratic elections," analyst Habib Malek told Deutsche Presse-
Agentur, dpa.

The elections in Beirut, first round in four-stage polls due to take
place each Sunday until June 19, saw a sweeping victory for the son
of late prime minister Rafik Hariri, Saadeddin.

But the poll was marred by a low turn-out - fewer than one-in-
three voters.

"People were not ready to vote because they knew the results ahead
of time. People were disappointed, because democracy means a real
race and unexpected results," Malek said. "Lebanons democracy still
needs an overhaul."

But he stressed that despite the low turnout, the elections gained
praise from world powers such as the United States and France, and
was given legitimacy - which was "good for Lebanon at this time".

He noted that even European monitors hailed the "open and transparent"
conduct of the first round of voting, and there had been no big
difference in the 33.8 perc ent turnout from the last legislative
polls in 2000.

Observers saw Hariri's success as a vote of loyalty for his late
father, who was assassinated in February - a murder which triggered
widespread protests that eventually pushed Syria to end its 29-year
military presence on April 26.

Turnout had been expected to be low because of the virtually guaranteed
success of Saadedin Hariri in the 19 seats up for grabs in Beirut. His
slate had already won nine of the seats uncontested before election
day.

But Hariri himself, and other anti-Syrian opposition figures expected
to take the lion's share of seats in the 128-seat parliament, were
aware of the low turnout and promised to work on a new electoral law
to replace the current one.

"All the new deputies will work towards drafting a new law to replace
this one that was drafted by the Lebanese authorities under Syria's
tutelage," said Deputy Mohammed Kabanni, who was on Hariri's list
and won a seat in parliament.

"The first mission of Saadeddine Hariri and his allies (in the
opposition) will be to start dialogue for a new electoral law,
following a compromise with all parties," Hani Hamoud, spokesman for
the Hariri family, told dpa.

The so-called 2000 electoral law, tailored by the Syrians, did not
please the Christians because they say it allows Moslems to choose many
of the Christian deputies in the assembly in a power-sharing agreement.

Saadeddin Hariri and his allies in the anti-Syrian opposition have
also criticized the law, but decided it was more important to hold
elections on time than try to draft a new one in haste.

"We should not forget that the vote followed an earthquake in the
country which was Hariri's assassination - so the opposition had
no choice but to go on with the elections on time than delay it,"
Hammoud said.

Turnout was particularly low in Christian districts of the capital.

Former exiled Christian General Michel Aoun, who recently fell out
with Hariri and his Moslem allies in the opposition, and the powerful
Armenian party Tashnag had called for a boycott.

A senior aide of Aoun, Alain Aoun, told dpa: "The Beirut voters have
expressed their wishes by rejecting to vote because there was no
battle, not because we called on them not to boycott."

Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, which decided not to participate in
the Beirut elections but will take part in the elections in other
districts, insisted the 2000 electoral law should be rejected because
it was drafted during the "Syrian hegemony over Lebanon".

Malek said: "I think we will see battles in the coming rounds of
elections in areas like Mount Lebanon. So let every political force
fight for its place and show its real weight. This is what will lead
us to a democratic election in the country in the future." dpa wh sc