BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Lebanese watch polls but remain apathetic

An artisan in Sidon listens to a TV broadcast of the session to elect a president as he works on assembling a chair.

BEIRUT: From grocers to dressmakers, Lebanese from Christian and Muslim neighborhoods alike were avidly following the televised parliamentary session to elect a new president Wednesday, but said results would not impact their lives directly.

Most were cynical about the effectiveness of the candidates vying for the country’s top Christian post, remaining apathetic over the results, no matter who the victor might be.

Some, like dressmaker Habib Said from Beirut’s Hamra, had predicted the results before they were announced: “No one will get the majority, there will be another session,” he told The Daily Star minutes before Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri announced the news.

The Parliament session failed to elect a new head of state, as rival factions remained divided over the country’s next president. None of the proposed candidates secured the two-thirds majority needed to win in the first round of voting.

The session was adjourned for lack of quorum after many March 8 coalition lawmakers walked out, with a new session set for April 30.

The disappointing conclusion had little effect on Lebanese watching the developments on TV.

“They [politicians] all mock the people,” said Josephine Sahyoun, who works in a baby clothes store in the Metn town of Bsalim.

For Sahyoun, none of the proposed candidates were worthy of the presidential post.

She trivialized the polls. She said she wouldn’t be surprised in the event of a presidential vacuum, as “this is Lebanon after all.”

Sahyoun’s feelings were echoed by many Christians in the area; several had told The Daily Star they were simply not interested in monitoring the election. Television screens in a number of shops were tuned in to serial dramas, not the live broadcast of the parliamentary session.

In a Broummana bookstore, elderly employee Nawader laughed off the election entirely. “We are not even watching the news,” she said, gesturing toward the soap opera playing out on TV. Her two friends nodded in agreement nearby.

“Whatever needs to happen, let it happen, we don’t care at all,” Nawader added. She complained that politicians do more harm than good, claiming that they were responsible for driving her children to leave the country to find work abroad.

“We are fed up,” she said.

Dismissive reactions were rampant on social media, with many offering their criticisms about the election using the hashtag #lebanonpresident2014.

“Lebanese presidential elections session: Comedy in the making. #lebanonpresident2014,” read one such tweet.

“I am uncomfortable with voting for a murderer. But this is Lebanese politics. Choice is real limited. #lebanonpresident2014,” another tweet said, referring to March 14 candidate and head of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea.

Some ballots submitted included the names of figures killed during the Civil War. Their relatives still accuse the LF leader for being responsible for their murders.

Other tweets also referred disparagingly to the 52 blank ballots that were cast in the session.

“And the blank ballot is winning #LebanonPresident2014. Why not, let’s just keep it that way,” said one particular tweet.

In Hamra, seemingly every television set was tuned into the news, with fruit vendors, barbers and coffee shop patrons alike watching the parliamentary session closely.

Posters of late former President Fouad Chehab – known for his reformist platform – were seen across the neighborhood, with the slogan “ Fouad Chehab for president” spelled out in bold underneath.

“We are hearing it, but we aren’t watching,” said the dressmaker Said, as Berri appeared on television announcing presidential candidates.

Were he to pick a candidate it would be Geagea.

“For sure,” he said. “Because he’s Lebanese,” hailing the LF leader’s critical stances on Hezbollah.

“I want to know who the candidates will be,” convenience store owner Joseph Karam said. When asked whether the results bore personal significance, he responded with a cool “No, it’s just fun to watch.”

“It’s interesting because there’s no clear favorite,” he said.

“It’s the first time there are many potential candidates.”

The elderly key-maker Atef and his associate Bilal were glued to the television set as election figures were announced. When the speaker announced Geagea was in the lead with 48 votes, Atef grunted. “Not enough,” he said.

Both men guffawed when Kataeb leader Amine Gemayel’s single vote was broadcast.

“We are following it,” said Atef, “But, I don’t really care who wins. None of them are working for the people’s interests.”

Geagea’s candidacy was greeted with more hostility in Shiite neighborhoods – which tend to support Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun – as his past conviction for the murder of former Prime Minister Rashid Karami and other activities during the Civil War period, as well as his harsh stances toward Hezbollah, have rubbed some the wrong way.

“He is a murderer,” said Kamal, the owner of a convenience store in Khandaq al-Ghamiq, where many residents support the Amal Movement. “Aoun, that’s it,” he said, when asked who he would back.

His sentiments were echoed by many, who perceive Aoun to be on their side, given his party’s association with the March 8 group.

“Geagea, he works with the Israelis,” butcher Fouad Aoun declared with a brush of the hand, also from Khandaq al-Ghamiq. “Everyone here likes Aoun, because he’s close to Hezbollah.”

But at an appliance store nearby, Mazen Hajjar of Zoqaq al-Blat said it didn’t matter who took the top Christian post. “All the candidates are criminals,” he said dismissively.

Despite the general pessimism, some remained hopeful.

For 26-year-old Giselle Garamani, who hails from the Baabda town of Qornayel, though Wednesday’s outcome was to be expected, she still considered the election an “important” event.

Garamani believes a presidential vacuum would be guaranteed, unless Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai directly intervenes and calls for a centrist candidate. “Otherwise, we will have no leader,” she said.

In Jounieh’s souks, Elia Ghosn was closely watching television in his beauty parlor as the clock hit noon and MPs began to cast their votes.

“My television is on and I am following up,” Ghosn, who hails from the Bekaa Valley, said proudly.

But like many, he feared a vacuum if the candidates selected were not “made in Lebanon,” which he said was a likely scenario.

Not far down, Alaa Sakr, the owner of a hardware store, told The Daily Star he too has been following up on the elections, even though his store lacked a television set.

He was concerned that a presidential vacuum would be bad for business. “We need a strong president,” Sakr said, naming former Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud as the ideal candidate.

Rashid Barbar, the owner of a lingerie store in Zalka, was more preoccupied with business than the election. After Parliament’s failure to elect a president became clear, the flat screen in Barbar’s store was still tuned into the news. “I watch when I don’t have clients,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 24, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

From grocers to dressmakers, Lebanese from Christian and Muslim neighborhoods alike were avidly following the televised parliamentary session to elect a new president Wednesday, but said results would not impact their lives directly.

Most were cynical about the effectiveness of the candidates vying for the country's top Christian post, remaining apathetic over the results, no matter who the victor might be.

For Sahyoun, none of the proposed candidates were worthy of the presidential post.

Geagea's candidacy was greeted with more hostility in Shiite neighborhoods – which tend to support Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun – as his past conviction for the murder of former Prime Minister Rashid Karami and other activities during the Civil War period, as well as his harsh stances toward Hezbollah, have rubbed some the wrong way.

Garamani believes a presidential vacuum would be guaranteed, unless Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai directly intervenes and calls for a centrist candidate.

Rashid Barbar, the owner of a lingerie store in Zalka, was more preoccupied with business than the election.


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