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Candidates worry about apathy with Lebanon elections set to begin

BEIRUT, Lebanon—With Syrian forces gone and international monitors in place, Lebanon begins monthlong elections Sunday that are expected to be the freest since this Mediterranean country emerged from civil war 15 years ago.

But with control of the 128-seat parliament at stake, candidates are worrying that voter apathy may hurt them at the polls.

That's a far cry from the massive street demonstrations that energized this capital last winter in the wake of the February car-bomb assassination of opposition leader Rafik Hariri. Tens of thousands of Lebanese poured into the streets, forcing the government to resign and bringing about the departure earlier this month of Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents who had occupied the country for years.

Most candidates are pledging to topple Lebanon's president and parliament speaker, who are pro-Syrian. There are no Lebanese or Syrian agents pressuring political parties to include pro-Syrian candidates on their tickets or arresting campaign workers and voters, many here say.

But voter apathy has been evident. Campaign posters dot the city, but noisy parades by horn-honking partisans, a political staple here, are at best rare. Attendance at recent campaign events seems low: More than a third of the tables were empty Thursday night at a rally for Gebran Tueni, a popular newcomer backed by Hariri's family and running for one of 19 seats here.

Why the apathy? Because the same tribal and political leaders who've run Lebanon for much of its turbulent history also picked the candidates who are on the ballot, political observers here say. Local newspapers are filled with familiar tales of rivalries and bickering, rather than campaigns and issues in elections that the Bush administration has pointed to as a beacon for a more democratic Middle East.

"A diplomat here told me we are not using our freedom wisely," said Rosana Bou Monsef, an editorial writer for Lebanon's An Nahar newspaper. "It hurt me to hear it, but it's right."

Added Chibli Mallat, a senior law professor at Beirut's St. Joseph University: "A third of the candidates are already elected because no one is standing against them. This style of victory is not very reassuring as to the health of Lebanese democracy."

The election law determining who may run in the elections was written by Lebanon's pro-Syrian parliament in 2000. It enshrines a system aimed at preserving peace in this volatile and diverse country by allotting seats to 18 different ethnic and religious groups, leaving little room for new ideas or challengers.

Under the system, Christian and Muslim groups are each allotted 64 seats. Of those reserved for Muslims, 27 must go to Shiite candidates, 27 to Sunnis, eight to Druze and two to Alawites. Of the Christian seats, Maronites are allotted 34, with other sects dividing up the remaining 30.

The timetable provides for a series of regional elections over the next four Sundays, starting in Beirut this Sunday. On June 5, voters in the south will cast ballots, with balloting in the Bekaa Valley and Mount Lebanon on June 12. The final vote is set for June 19 in the north.

There are no polls here that predict voter turnout or interest, but candidates of all stripes are united in their concern that voters won't show up. They say the election timetable was too short to come up with innovative ideas. Some blame the United States and France for pushing too hard for quick elections to prevent Syria and its Lebanese proponents from re-establishing their stranglehold here.

"It's a farce to face elections in any country in 20 days," said Adnan Arakji, an industrialist who has served three terms in the government.

One beneficiary of a low turnout might be Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Muslim movement that's backed by Syria and Iran and is on the State Department list of terrorist organizations.

Hezbollah has allied itself with its one-time opponents on Hariri's ticket, with another Shiite Muslim group, Amal, and with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, providing it the chance to increase its clout in parliament.

But even its leadership has voiced concerns about what appears to be a lack of voter interest.

"Lebanese society needs to unite in order to face its big problems," said Sheik Mohammed Kawtharani, a member of Hezbollah's politburo.

Kawtharani and other candidates, including formerly exiled Gen. Michel Aoun, are calling for the new parliament to be an interim one, to be replaced in a year or two instead of the regular, four-year interval.

Still, candidate Tueni, who's running with Hariri's son Saad on the Maak, or "With You," ticket sees an upside, despite the low turnout at his rally Thursday.

"What's going to change is that there will be a direct link between public opinion and the delegates," Tueni said. "Syria is not here anymore."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050527 LEBANON elections

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