Local elections in the former Israeli-occupied zone will see “no one eliminated” politically, according to the Hizbullah official responsible for political affairs in the South.
Sheikh Abdel-Majid Ammar told The Daily Star that Hizbullah was insistent that its alliance with Amal produce a smooth poll on Sept. 9, when around 100 towns and villages choose local government officials for the first time in almost four decades.
The goal of the election alliance is to defeat what Ammar called a continued whispering campaign that the South suffered from political instability.
“The decision has been taken to hold the elections. Nothing except the security situation can prevent them from happening,” Ammar said.
In 1998, when local elections in the rest of the country took place after a 35-year absence, the two Shiite parties did not ally.
Instead, their strategy was ad hoc, as they forged alliances according to the electoral considerations in a given town or village.
“The front-line areas, however, are more sensitive,” Ammar said, referring to the former occupation zone.
Election preparations, Ammar said, began around six months ago, after an initiative by the Amal movement.
He said the issue had been discussed on several occasions by Amal leader Nabih Berri and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary-general.
Ammar denied that Damascus intervened to encourage the alliance, adding that “I think the Syrians would bless any alliance between Amal and Hizbullah, or among any groups.”
He said that Amal originally proposed a 50-50 split of council seats to anchor the alliance, but that this proposal was rejected by Hizbullah.
“This would mean ‘political elimination’ for other groups,” Ammar said. “We countered by suggesting that neither the mayor nor the deputy-mayor’s post go to party members. Amal accepted this point, which we consider the backbone of our alliance.”
Candidates cannot officially run for the two posts, since their selection takes place afterward, by a vote of the elected council members, but it is usually understood which candidates on a list will end up as mayor and deputy mayor.
As Ammar repeatedly stressed, any party that enjoys influence in a given town or village will be invited to join efforts to form a “consensus” ticket.
“The alliance was concluded between the two parties on the basis of ‘no elimination of anyone.’ We insist that it include all political forces, parties, prominent figures and political currents, whether the Syrian Social Nationalist Party or the Communist Party … all forces.”
Asked if supporters of former Speaker Kamel Asaad would be eligible to join coalition tickets, Ammar repeated the slogan that “no one will be eliminated politically.”
The cleric declined to discuss the details of negotiations now underway with the various sides, but affirmed that “the election campaign has begun.”
Ammar said that in areas lacking an overwhelmingly Shiite majority or power base for Hizbullah and Amal, the role of the two parties would be one of “blessing any consensus ticket that is formed.”
The alliance requires that the particular makeup of each village and town be taken into consideration, with special emphasis on seeing candidates who represent area families.
Ammar said that potential mayors and deputy mayors should be qualified individuals, with no questions about their political neutrality.
“There are a lot of qualified people around, and ties to a specific party will eliminate many from consideration, because we don’t want this identification used against us,” he said. “The mayor and deputy mayor must be completely neutral,” to let them be effective in their posts.
Ammar underlined recent positive statements on the polls by Elias Kfoury, the Orthodox bishop of Marjayoun, and dismissed the need for a reconciliation, which was demanded by Elias Hayek, the same town’s Melchite bishop.
“Israeli propaganda has been working for a long time to spread fear among the people. But the good relations that have prevailed since the withdrawal have helped defeat these fears and delusions.
“No one can claim that there have been problems in the handling of the situation (in the former occupation zone),” he said, dismissing the idea of a need for reconciliation. “If it means reconciling with proponents of the Israeli option, we reject this,” he said. “And no one should exploit this poll to incite fears.”
Ammar played down the idea that the absence of large numbers of southern voters having fled to Israel or elsewhere in the wake of the withdrawal would produce skewed results.
“The total number of people who fled was not that big, especially when you distribute them among various towns. Take Qlaya, one of the major Maronite centers … When we first entered Qlaya (after the withdrawal) it was empty, but it’s now brimming with people.
“Towns like Dibil, Ain Ibil, Rmaish were never emptied of their populations,” he added. “They are almost as heavily populated as Sunni and Shiite villages. These fears aren’t based on the facts on the ground.”
For his part, Kfoury told The Daily Star that “a good atmosphere” was prevailing in the run-up to the poll.
“We’re behind any agreement, and I think that (the Amal-Hizbullah alliance) is a good thing. I hope people interested in serving their towns are elected.”
Kfoury said he was heartened by the fact that political parties, especially Amal and Hizbullah, were telling local residents that they would not be pressuring voters in Christian villages.
He also added his voice to the dismissing of fears that the South had been emptied of its residents in the wake of the withdrawal. “There is more movement than there was during the occupation. People are coming and going all the time,” Kfoury said.
The bishop also said he hoped that many elections would not have to take place, due to candidate lists winning unopposed.
However, Ammar indicated that this was unlikely to happen on a wide scale.
“It’s very difficult to see a list win unopposed. There are always (independent) candidates who will run, meaning we will see elections in most places.”
As for the role of ex-members of the defunct South Lebanon Army, Ammar pledged that “whatever the law says” would stand.
“If they are allowed to be candidates, or vote, or whatever, then this is what we will respect. But anyone who has favored the ‘Israeli option’ is not going to be included in the alliance.”
Another stipulation of the agreement is that Hizbullah, Amal and their allies establish a single election office in a given village or town, to reduce any possibility of tension.
Last month, friction between Amal and Hizbullah partisans erupted in the village of Anqoun, Sidon. The army was forced to intervene to end a stand-off after Hizbullah’s deputy-secretary general, Sheikh Naim Qassem, arrived to speak at a ceremony.
He described the Anqoun incident as something as natural as conflict between “brothers,” adding that “we hope that it won’t be repeated.”
He denied that Hizbullah had forced the issue by scheduling an event in a village seen as an Amal stronghold, saying, “The resistance has entered all homes. We don’t need to organize events to establish our presence.”