Money, vote-buying engines of polls

BEIRUT (AFP) — Money, vote-buying and vote-rigging, in parallel with links of clan and community structure, have always been the essential engines for success in Lebanese legislative elections.
On the eve of Lebanon’s independence in 1943, “the partisans of presidential candidate Beshara al-Khoury, who was supported by Britain, were the first to use money massively in the legislative elections,” said 100-year-old Jawdat Haidar, who was then an unlucky candidate in the eastern region of Bekaa.

“After they secured a majority in the parliament, they defeated the outgoing President Emile Edde,” a man supported by France, which had been the mandatory force in Lebanon since 1920, he added.

“Money served to buy votes, bribe the chiefs of family clans and gain favours with civil servants and officers,” Haidar told AFP.

Sami Nini, a political analyst, said the Greek-Catholic deputies in the Bekaa and south Lebanon started the custom of “electoral donations” and the purchasing of votes.

This custom was quickly adopted by Shia and Sunni candidates who had made fortunes respectively in Africa and Saudi Arabia.

Influential politicians, Muslims as well as Christians, demanded payments of large sums of cash from would-be candidates seeking to be on the “list of winners,” which would have usually been close to power, said sociologist Melhem Chaoul.

The parliament which was elected in 1972, for a four-year term, stayed in office until two years after the end of the civil war (1975-1990) — the beginning of a period marked by Syrian domination.

Both the candidates who won and those who were defeated agreed that the rules of the electoral game were modified by massive intervention of Syrian intelligence who received “financial gifts.”

The poll of 2000 resulted in a pro-Syrian majority composed of billionaires like ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated last February 14, and ex-vice premier Issam Fares, or multi-millionaires like current Prime Minister Najib Miqati who heads a telecommunications empire. In addition, millionaires enriched by corruption, the use of influence, smuggling and drug trafficking found seats in the chamber.

A UN report said that acts of “vote buying and irregularities are known… but difficult to prove.”

Money is also used to fund advertising campaigns without being regulated, and to transport voters from their towns of residence to the voting stations in their places of birth.

Today, powerful figures, like the head of the parliament, Nabih Berri, the Hariri family and the Iran-supported Hizbollah, have their own media, while the list of Druze chief Walid Jumblat is riddled with Christian bankers.

Several outgoing deputies said they will not contest the forthcoming elections of 2005 citing “massive rigging” due to the monopoly exercised by the Hariri movement in the Sunni dominated region, and an Amal-Hizbollah duopoly in the Shia areas.

Former premier Omar Karameh, an heir of a reputed political family, said he decided to abandon the race for “lacking the power to face the financial abilities of my adversaries.”

“The unfolding of the elections is determined by the influence of family clans, community membership, money and vote buying,” said former minister Michel Edde.

The political community has transformed the administration into a “genuine electoral reservoir”

“He who gets a job in the public sector due to a string-pulling by a minister should show his gratitude at the ballot box,” said Chaoul.

Israel dismisses Hizbollah rocket threat
OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israel on Thursday dismissed threats from Hizbollah that its Shiite Muslim militia can strike the Jewish state with thousands of rockets as desperate electioneering ahead of Lebanon’s polls.

On Wednesday, Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said his fighters could hit northern Israel with more than 12,000 rockets, in an address to thousands of supporters in Bint-Jbeil, a Shiite town near the Israeli border.

“Nasrallah’s declarations are principally trying to improve Hizbollah’s political standing before the elections,” said a senior Israeli military official on condition of anonymity.

Lebanese go to the polls in general elections starting on May 29, with voting spread regionally across four consecutive Sundays.

Amiram Levine, a former commander in northern Israel and ex-number two in the country’s spy agency Mossad, also accused Hizbollah of making idle threats.

“It’s a threat on paper only and I don’t think Hizbollah will behave irrationally,” Levine told army radio.

Exchanges of cross-border fire and retaliatory Israeli air strikes intermittently rock the district, and Israel has repeatedly called on Hizbollah to disarm in line with UN Security Council demands.

Nasrallah’s speech marked the fifth anniversary of the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon after more than 20 years of occupation, a pullout for which Hizbollah’s armed wing was widely credited in the country.

“Nasrallah’s comments are blackmail,” a close aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told AFP.

“Of course Israel will react if we are attacked,” said the source, accusing Nasrallah of making inflammatory statements in order to disguise fears his militia would be forced to disarm.

UN Security Council Resolution 1559 passed in September 2004 calls for an end to all foreign interference in Lebanon and for militias to disarm.

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