Around 100,000 people in the former occupied zone cast their ballots in local elections Sunday that saw fierce political competition outweigh security concerns.
Approximately 50 percent of the area’s 219,000 registered voters showed up, according to the Interior Ministry, which is expected to announce official results and turnout on Monday.
Local elections took place in 54 out of 64 towns that were originally scheduled to see polling, after 10 councils were elected unopposed. Another 50 villages that do not have municipalities held polls to select mukhtars and members of mukhtar councils. Voters selected a total of 367 mukhtars and almost 780 members of municipal councils. Mayors and deputy mayors will be chosen later by the elected council members.
The Amal-Hizbullah alliance was expected to take some of the edge off the election-day excitement, unlike the municipal polls of 1998, when the two fielded opposing lists.
However, competition was fierce in towns like Hasbaya, Jezzine, Marjayoun, Khiam and Houla. Local families and clans, Christian opposition politicians, and the Communist, Progressive Socialist and Syrian Social Nationalist parties vied to get their supporters elected.
Observers expected victories by candidates competing against the Amal-Hizbullah alliance due to the difficulty in pleasing all electoral blocs involved.
After the 1998 municipal elections, the first round since 1963, several dozen local councils were dissolved or became paralyzed when members failed to agree. Three years on, many voters have become aware of what is at stake in a local election: They face a choice between selecting candidates from competing lists in an attempt to demonstrate independence, or electing a harmonious team that can function effectively.
President Emile Lahoud expressed satisfaction with election day, praising the Interior Ministry’s logistical preparations. Lahoud also addressed the eventual winners, saying they faced the challenge of assisting in the development of their towns and villages, which suffered from over 22 years of Israeli occupation.
Interior Minister Elias Murr made the traditional tour of polling stations, but his meetings with Hizbullah, Amal and other groups and politicians seen as close to the authorities raised eyebrows. The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) said the selective itinerary was a “flagrant violation.”
The election watchdog issued a statement saying that the authorities were “biased” in supervising the polls and listed a range of alleged electoral infractions. The group said the state had only a “formal” presence in parts of the former zone, meaning that groups enjoying control of events on the ground, a reference to Hizbullah, “functioned as the effective authority.”
LADE also said voters were pressured, singling out the Council for the South and the Tobacco Regie as places where people’s livelihoods were used to force them to support tickets. LADE said a number of candidates and campaign delegates were threatened and one was beaten up before the polls opened.
A candidate loyal to Minister of State Talal Arslan, entered a polling station in Ain Qenya with a gun, the group charged.
LADE said that ISF members distributed candidate lists in Aitaroun, while Rmeish and Bint Jbeil saw security personnel present inside polling stations, a violation of the Election Law. A polling station in a public high school was used as a campaign office by Hizbullah-backed candidates, the statement added.
LADE also cited the neglect of the voting curtain in a number of polling stations.
Murr later visited Premier Rafik Hariri in Koraytem, where he relayed the most pressing theme of his tour during the day: the development needs which Hariri pledged would be made a government priority.