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Muslim voters poised to play decisive role in Koura by-election

Mfarej is competing with Karam for March 14 votes. (The Daily Star/Antoine Amrieh)

KOURA, Lebanon: After resentment between supporters of rival political camps in Koura returned to normal in recent months, a heated campaign for this month’s by-election has brought back the fierce rhetoric between March 14 and March 8 coalitions.

Despite the presence of three candidates on the campaign trail in Koura, the contentious battle is mainly between Fadi Karam, a March 14 candidate nominated by the Lebanese Forces and Walid Azar, a candidate supported by the March 8 and nominated by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

The exception to this battle is candidate Jean Mfarej, who claims on many occasions that he is with the March 14 coalition, while he reportedly has also said that he is mainly running to prove the number of votes he can garner from rival coalitions.

Koura has a predominantly Christian population, meaning the battle is being played out over the Christian vote.

But Christians are sharply divided between the SSNP’s Azar and LF’s Karam, making the Sunni vote the decisive factor in the July 16 by-election.

Sources close to the Lebanese Forces and the SSNP say that there is a possibility that Christian voters are split equally and any differences in the number of votes received by either candidate will be insignificant.

As a result, both sides are taking every opportunity to encourage Koura residents to vote, particularly targeting the Muslim vote.

Rival candidates are also betting on the participation of Lebanese expatriates to ensure a victory.

There is a small number of Shiite and Alawite voters in Koura, mainly present in five of the district’s villages. Shiite voters make up 25-30 percent of the total Muslim voters, and are predicted to overwhelmingly place their support behind Azar, the March 8 candidate.

The majority of Sunnis are likely to be in favor of the LF candidate, Fadi Karam, because most of these voters support the Future Movement.

A resident of Amyoun, who supports neither side in the elections, says the by-election is not worth the ongoing battle because the 2013 parliamentary elections are only months away.

“Koura is boiling over old conflicts, which everyone could have avoided, if they had followed logic and not their emotions, and had realized that the by-election was not worth this. It’s only 10 months until the next election, and this one doesn’t need this much action,” the resident said.

“Let them leave us to live our lives, and they can fight in the 2013 election, since that post will be for four years, and the competition will make sense.”

A source close to Mfarej said “Koura is lost between the two sides of the political struggle, who have taken the decision out of the hands of anyone who is not a member of a party or a movement. They will not have an opinion to be heard.”

He added: “In Koura we used to take pride in knowledge and culture, but today we are running after politicians without thinking.”

A source close to the LF said the party was close to victory, and the battle is over Lebanon’s existence. “Fadi Karam will be an MP on July 16. This by-election is critical and we will find out the choice of the people of Koura.

“Currently our efforts are focused solely on increasing the difference in votes. They tried to take us back to the days of the Civil War and they have issued rumors and lies and have forced us to respond, but the residents of Koura and its youth are aware of the truth.”

The deputy speaker, Farid Makari, a member of the March 14 coalition, said that the difference in votes will reach around 4,000 or possibly more, in favor of March 14.

Responding to Makari’s claims, an SSNP source said the party will do its best to get its candidate to Parliament.

“We are working with our allies, especially the Free Patriotic Movement, and the Marada Movement, to bring Walid Azar to Parliament. Our work will not stop until the results are announced,” the source said.

But some in Koura claim that the SSNP’s chosen candidate lacks widespread support, which has caused some sensitivity as the residents feel the choice was forced upon them.

Residents have also said that Karam should have waged the campaign without being dragged into verbal fights and responding to accusations.

According to sources in Koura, while the results will not change anything in the national political balance between March 8 and March 14, it will be a symbolic victory for one of the sides.

The likely outcome will become clearer with the arrival of Future Movement general coordinator Ahmad Hariri to Koura, when he will meet with public figures.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 11, 2012, on page 3.

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