Election day in Achrafieh

At long last, today’s the day. We’ve had months and months of electioneering by the political parties. We’ve had even more time spent by the Interior Ministry planning Lebanon’s first ever national elections to be held on just one day. The security planning has been meticulous, as has the traffic management.

What a relief that this day has come. Soon it will all be behind us, so that we can get on with the next drama!

Watching the elections has been really interesting as an outsider. The process is amazingly complicated, and would take a whole year of blogs to explain fully (assuming I understand it all, which is not likely). There are so many little quirks to the Lebanese system which you don’t really see anywhere else.

Take the ballot papers for example. Lebanon doesn’t have pre-printed ballot papers. Officially, a voter is supposed to go to the ballot box with a blank sheet of paper on which they write the names of the candidates they’re supporting. In practice, voters are handed little pre-printed ballots by the different parties as they go in, usually with no room to make any changes. According to some of the election monitoring NGOs, these ballots are often printed with a certain colour or font depending upon the family voting – making it easy for a party to work out afterwards if your family voted for them or not (so that they can then either reward or punish you). Here are a few ballots that I picked up today:

So it has been fun to watch the goings on here in Achrafieh, which as the core of Beirut 1 district, is one of the most hotly contested.

This morning I took a wander up to Sassine Square, the heart of Achrafieh. This was clearly one of the identified flashpoints: around the six-road junction there were just as many armoured personnel carriers, together with around 80 special forces soldiers from the Lebanese Armed Forces. Cars cruised past in every direction with huge Lebanese Forces (Geagea), Kataeb (Gemayel) or Free Patriotic Movement (Aoun) flags on display, the drivers honking out the signature tunes for their chosen political party. Basically it felt like I was outside a major football match. Everyone in the area behaved like fervent supporters, energetic but otherwise calm.

All of the posters above are around Sassine Square. All of these groups are part of the March 14 alliance. Before anyone accuses me of being pro-March 14, can I just point out that this part of Achrafieh is predominantly March 14. On the other hand, my own part of Achrafieh, heading towards downtown, is much more pro-Aoun (of the March 8 alliance) – an example being these posters, which are outside the Aounie electorate office next door to my apartment building.

Anyway, here’s a little bit of video I took this morning of the boys in khaki at work. Not very exciting, but some local colour for you.

Update: the Aounie office next door has taken over the adjacent carpark and has a bank of concert speakers set up blaring out motivational Lebanese music. Presumably the FPM supporters will congregate here in the hope that Interior Minister Baroud announces the outcome soon. Could be a long and loud night for us…

4 Replies to “Election day in Achrafieh”

  1. Is voting compulsory? How do they keep track of multiple votes by the same person? Do they vote the graveyards? What is the difference between March 8th and March 14th, don’t say 6 days or I’ll thump you.

    From international reports the process seems to have been pretty peaceful, I suppose having small tanks scattered around tends to encourage good behaviour. We also read and hear that the incumbent government seems to have strengthened its position, i just hope there is not a backlash as a result.

    I hope you soundproofing is good as I expect things will get or did get a bit noisier with the announcement of the results.
    p.s. how is the black eye progressing.

  2. Actually the guy next door lost so the party ended quite abruptly at 11:30 pm.

    The black eye is all but healed thanks.

    I’ll leave it up to him to answer your other questions – way too complicated…

  3. Okay, here we go:

    No, voting is not compulsory. This time around they had about 55 percent of eligible voters turnout nationwide, which is a record for Lebanon. Voting was quite high in some of the more contested districts (up to 70 percent). Some other districts were much less – for example Beirut II, which is not too far from where we live, was effectively uncontested as March 8 and March 14 had reached agreement on a joint list of candidates there. So only 27 percent turned up there.

    In order to control the number of times people vote, Lebanon introduced the same thumb ink that’s used in many other elections worldwide. The ink is supposed to take a day or so to wear off, although apparently many of the Lebanese ladies with their exquisite manicures had to be forced to put their thumbs in the ink.

    As to the difference between March 8 and March 14, that’s either really easy to explain or very complex. The simplest version, which is usually adopted by the media, is to say that the ruling March 14 alliance is pro-US and pro-Sunni Arab (ie close to Saudi Arabia and Egypt), while the March 8 opposition is pro-Syria and pro-Iran. Delving a bit more deeply, after the February 2005 assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri, there were increasing calls for Syria to end its 30 year military occupation of Lebanon. On 8 March 2005 a large rally was convened in downtown Beirut in support of continued Syrian involvement in Lebanon. Then on 14 March 2005 a huge rally – reportedly up to 1 million people – gathered in downtown demanding Syria’s withdrawal. In the face of such opposition, and with the UN Security Council issuing a resolution calling for it to go, Syria withdrew all of its troops in April 2005. In June 2005 parliamentary elections were held in which an alliance of parties broadly opposed to Syrian interference gained a majority. It became known as the March 14 alliance, while the opposition parties (including Hizballah) were therefore labelled March 8.

    There’s a whole lot more to it, but that’s the simplest version.

    After months of concern, the elections went remarkably smoothly. There was some violence, and plenty of electoral fraud, but that’s standard practice here. Most credit for the elections’ success goes to Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, who seems to be about the only truly neutral politician in government (and probably the only one who thinks of Lebanon as a whole – all of the others only tend to think about their own village, sect or electorate). Baroud absolutely busted his gut to make these elections work. But it seems pretty clear that a large chunk of the Lebanese public had a genuine interest in voting and having a say over their future.

    While the Aoun candidate next door lost and the party ended early, there’s been no shortage of celebrating in the neighbourhood. We’ve had fireworks and celebratory gunfire every night since Sunday. Enough is enough!

  4. Much clearer, thanks. I sometimes wonder who would be in the majority if voting was not compulsory in Oz; I suspect Kylie Minogue!

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