ZAHLE, Lebanon: Just days ahead of the municipal elections Sunday, Zahle’s race is neck and neck with major local and national players all vying for key positions in the Bekaa Valley town. The fierce competition between political figures is apparent to anyone who even glimpses Zahle from afar. Candidates’ posters are plastered across all available surfaces. Loudspeakers and microphones compete to overpower each other as each screech their respective songs and slogans.
For Myriam Skaff, head of the Popular Bloc, the upcoming elections offer a doorway to political representation in Zahle and a litmus test of her ability to rally the electorate. Skaff succeeded her late husband, former Minister and Zahle MP Elias Skaff who died last year, to the helm of the Popular Bloc. Sunday’s elections will prove whether she can muster the popular support she claims to represent in the area.
Skaff’s ascendance to her late husband’s commanding position is far from guaranteed. Opposing her are two rival lists: the “Parties’ List” and the list backed by MP Nicholas Fattoush. The Parties’ List comprises the main traditional Lebanese Christian political parties, the Lebanese Forces, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Kataeb Party. All three have united in a common electoral ballot as they seek to wrest Zahle away from the powerful local families that have long dominated the municipal council. Many see Sunday’s contest as the sole and final chance to do so.
Meanwhile, Fattoush’s list is headed by his brother Musa. The Skaffs have long dominated the town, but with the passing of the torch to Myriam, Fattoush is looking to capitalize on her inexperience in elected office and draw support to his own orbit.
With the tight race entering the final stretch, Skaff has taken to the streets of the town, microphone in hand, to cajole citizens into voting for her. Her rhetoric specifically targets her opponents. She has been warning people of Zahle not to allow their town’s fate to “pass through Maarab and Rabieh,” referencing the location of the headquarters of the Lebanese Forces and Free Patriotic Movement. She accused the Kataeb Party of taking advantage of her husband’s demise, describing their motives as “opportunistic.”
Meanwhile, Skaff is trying to paint Fattoush as the epitome of corruption. She claims that his motives to run are to facilitate a “project of death,” in reference to a cement factory the former minister is planning to establish in the area.
Despite Skaff’s indefatigable canvasing, Zahle’s voters appear to remain split between the three lists. The plot thickened after Ali Khatib, a Shiite on the Parties’ List, announced his withdrawal. With the loss of the figure, so too have the Parties’ List lost the support of a segment of the Shiite Muslim electorate. The area’s Muslim constituents now potentially have the deciding say.
Both Hezbollah and the Amal Movement have instructed their followers in the city not to vote for the Parties’ List, instead saying they should choose between the Popular Bloc and Fattoush. Skaff has received the green light to woo the Shiite voters as she pleases and with the Future Movement throwing its weight behind her, she is also tapping into the Sunni community.
Through his brother Pierre, Fattoush reached out to Change and Reform Bloc head MP Michel Aoun. Sources indicate that Fattoush tried to encourage Aoun to lend support to his list; however, Aoun apparently rejected the idea and told Fattoush to go form his list independently.
Rumors are circulating that some groups are offering bribes of up to $300 per vote. Sources said that one of the lists had set aside $5 million to fund electoral endeavors, with the hopes that the hefty sum would guarantee victory.
Despite the efforts of each of the parties, sources in the town are predicting a mixed council to emerge from the fray. Insiders anticipate that of the 21 municipal member council, some 8 Popular Bloc candidates, 7 from the Parties’ lists, and 6 of Fattoush’s people will secure the nomination.