Lebanon’s first parliamentary polls without heavy-handed Syrian influence began today.
The family of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – widow Nazek, sons Fahd and Ayman and daughter Hind – led the voting, arriving within an hour of polls opening at 7am (4am Irish time) to cast their ballots.
“I have high hopes today that we will uncover the truth of who planned and carried out the crime against my beloved husband, who in life built this country and in his martyrdom achieved national unity,” Nazek Hariri said after casting her ballot at a Verdun polling station before she headed to downtown Beirut to pray at her husband’s grave.
Many observers expect the polls to sweep the anti-Syrian opposition to power and install a new parliament, removing the last of Syria’s political control. Syrian forces withdrew in April, ending a 29-year military dominance, after mass demonstrations in Lebanon and relentless international pressure sparked by the February assassination.
This is the first election where Syrian or Lebanese intelligence agents or their allies do not appear to be weighing in on the voters’ choices.
The spiritual leader of Sunni Muslims, the sect to which the Hariris belong, joined in calling for people to go out and vote.
“Today is the day of gratitude for the great martyr Rafik Hariri,” said Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, the Grand Mufti of the Republic, after casting his ballot. ”Indifference could negatively affect the outcome.”
Giant pictures of the former premier and his son and random posters of independent candidates filled the streets of Beirut. Campaign banners reading “the truth,” referring to the push to find the culprits in Hariri’s assassination, were pasted outside some polling stations.
The three districts in the Lebanese capital vote first in the staggered elections. Others regions vote on the next three consecutive Sundays.
About 420,000 people are eligible to vote in Beirut. At stake in the city are 19 of the legislature’s 128 seats, which are divided equally among Muslims and Christians. In Beirut, seats are allocated according to Lebanon’s power-sharing political system to six Sunni Muslims, three Armenian Orthodox, two Greek Orthodox, two Shiite Muslims, one Druse, one Maronite Catholic, one Armenian Catholic, one Greek Catholic, one Protestant and one for minorities.
The Lebanese government has promised to hold “free and fair” elections. More than 100 foreign observers from the European Union and the United Nations will be watching the vote for irregularities, the first time Lebanon has permitted foreign scrutiny. The organisation of French-speaking countries also sent a delegation.
Jose Ignacio Salafranca Sanchez-Neyra, chief EU observer, said the elections were a celebration of democracy. ”Today, the only winner is Lebanon,” he said.
Rafik Hariri – who was prime minister for 10 of the last 15 years and credited with rebuilding Lebanon from the destruction of the 1975-90 civil war – was killed with 20 other people in a bomb on a Beirut street on February 14.
The opposition has blamed Syria and its Lebanese security allies for the bombing. Damascus and the previous Beirut government have denied any involvement.