Lebanon News

Tens of thousands cast ballots in first phase of Lebanon municipal elections

BEIRUT: Tens of thousands of voters from Beirut, the Bekaa and Baalbek-Hermel lined up at polling stations Sunday to cast their ballots in local elections, the first polls to be held on time in the country since 2010.

Police and soldiers were heavily deployed outside schools and other locations transformed into polling stations to ensure order.

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk had announced that 20,000 security personnel would be dispatched across the areas voting.

"The security situation is excellent," Machnouk said.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. and closed 12 hours later. The voter turnout reached 20.14 percent in Beirut, 52.6 percent in Zahle, 43.5 percent in Rashaya, 42 percent in West Bekaa, 62 percent in Baalbek, and 45 percent in Hermel.

The ministry said that the 476,021 eligible voters in Beirut were distributed among 1,646 polling stations in the capital, while 308,717 voters in the Bekaa were distributed among 1,158 stations. The 303,102 voters in the Baalbek and Hermel districts casted their ballots at 1,101 stations.

The Interior Ministry banned the use of motorcycles and scooters on all polling days scheduled for this month.

No major security incidents were recorded during the polls, however, two separate scuffles in Zahle involving supporters of the Popular Bloc, the Lebanese Forces, and those who back the Fattoush list left three people injured.

The conflicts involved allegations of vote-buying, and at least one person was arrested for paying voters, according to Machnouk.

Witnesses also reported minor incidents at several polling stations as supporters of different lists engaged in verbal spats over the alleged presence of fake ballot lists, but security forces managed to control the standoffs.

Some representatives of lists outside polling stations were reportedly handing voters lists alleging to be from a certain group, but with names of candidates from a competing campaign.

In a press conference after polls closed, Machnouk announced that the ministry received 650 complaints altogether, most of which he said were dealt with.

He reported four incidents of gunfire, eight scuffles inside polling stations and 20 other "minor security incidents" throughout the day.

He apologized for neglecting the needs of handicapped voters who struggled to reach voting booths at some polling stations, vowing to address the issue before the next phase of elections on May 15.

"What is important is that the elections happened on time ... the bigger celebration will take place when we elect a president," he said.

Mount Lebanon polls are set for May 15, south Lebanon and Nabatieh for May 22, and north Lebanon and Akkar for May 29.

BEIRUT

Beirut's usually quiet Sunday mornings were marked by heavy traffic, with people in buses and cars coming from around the country to the capital to vote.

In the Beirut neighborhood of Aisha Bakkar, volunteers holding clipboards welcomed a bus dropping off a couple dozen women to vote at a nearby polling station.

A little down the road near Verdun Street, authorities blocked off parking with yellow tape about 50 meters from each side of the entrance to a school being used as a polling station.

A couple dozen army soldiers stood around the school to keep close watch.

On Spears Street near Hamra, a handful of buses were parked inside a parking lot next to the old Future Television station to drop off voters.

The army set up a checkpoint on both sides of the Fouad Chehab bridge, which runs south of Downtown Beirut and connects the city's east and west.

From inside a polling station in Beirut's Bashoura area, police officers escorted voters into rooms to cast their ballots and inspected the area before leaving.

Each room contained two ballot boxes: one for municipal council candidates and the other for mukhtars, which are local government officials.

Three main lists are competing for Beirut's 24-member Municipal Council. The Beirutis’ List, supported by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and many of the country's main political parties including the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanese Forces, Kataeb and Speaker Nabih Berri's Amal Movement, is most likely to come out on top.

Its main rivals are the secular Beirut Madinati (Beirut my City) and Citizens Within a State lists, which have pledged to challenge the traditional grip over the Municipal Council by the Future Movement and its allies.

Future Movement supporters blasted political party songs on loudspeakers in the Tariq al-Jadideh area from the early hours of the morning to try and encourage people to vote for the Beirutis' list.

Hariri has in previous days toured many neighborhoods in the capital, primarily in west Beirut where he has a popular base, in a bid to sway voters.

"Today is a democratic day par excellence. People should vote freely and in a democratic manner," Hariri told reporters after voting at the Shakib Arslan School in Beirut's Verdun area.

Television footage showed a casually dressed Hariri entering a voting booth behind a curtain to fill out his ballots for the municipal and mukhtar votes before submitting them in a box.

"I voted for the Beirutis' list as it is," Hariri said.

However, the head of the polling station later said that Hariri's vote in the mukhtar election was invalid because he placed the ballot inside a box specified for the municipal elections.

Satirical posts and pictures went viral shortly after mocking Hariri’s error.

"Today is a historic day, and every citizen must practice their right to vote, because regret wont benefit anyone tomorrow," Beirut Madinati candidate and actress Nadine Labaki said, as she voiced optimism over the voter turnout. "I think the turnout this year will be greater than in the last elections."

After casting his vote in Beirut's Karm Zeitoun neighborhood in the Ashrafieh district, Citizens Within a State head and former Minister Charbel Nahas said the municipal polls have ultimately ended the Parliament's mandate.

"It is clear how much money is being pumped (into the campaigns) and the effect it has on the media. We are over with this failed and illegal Parliament ... there will be more good news later on," Nahas said.

Former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said after visiting the Citizens Within a State headquarters in Beirut that the Constitutional Council should now look into any excuses that call for the delay of the parliamentary elections, saying that the municipal polls proved that the security situation was under control and did not constitute an obstacle for voting.

President Michel Sleiman's term ended in May 2014 and the Parliament has extended its term by two years in November 2015 over security concerns.

Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib also toured some polling stations.

BEKAA

The main battle took place in the Bekaa governorate city of Zahle, where three popular lists competed. One is headed by Myriam Skaff, the chief of the Popular Bloc, the “Parties’ List,” and the list backed by MP Nicolas Fattoush.

The Parties’ List is headed by former Zahle Mayor Asaad Zogheib and comprises the main Lebanese Christian political parties: the LF, the FPM and the Kataeb Party.

Fattoush’s list is headed by his brother, Musa.

The Skaff family is widely popular in Zahle, and Myriam has been carrying the torch of her late-husband, Elias, who died of cancer last year.

But with Elias's passing, Fattoush is looking to capitalize on the inexperience of Myriam in elected office to draw fresh support, while the three major political parties are seeking to wrest Zahle from the powerful local families that have long dominated the Municipal Council.

TV footage showed a scuffle at a polling station in Zahle between supporters of the three lists over vote-buying allegations.

A similar incident occurred after LF supporters reportedly stormed into a Popular Bloc office.

"I'm still waiting for the Lebanese Forces to explain what happened. I call on people to try and protect democracy, which we should all follow," Skaff told reporters.

Three people were lightly injured in the fighting and admitted to nearby hospitals.

Machnouk later announced that someone in Zahle had been arrested for paying bribes. State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud then announced later Sunday that the man arrested had with him $3,200 which he was using to buy the votes, adding that he was referred to a judge in Zahle.

Nicolas Fattoush, however, denied the allegations.

"All the rumors saying we are bribing voters is nothing but a cheap lie," Fattoush said. Fattoush has in the past been involved in certain scandals, especially related to quarries around the Zahle region.

Videos went viral showing a man, apparently a supporter of Fattoush, telling voters they can recieve money in exchange for their votes.

The Interior Ministry had postponed elections in the Zahle District town of Jdita, the West Bekaa District village of Hawsh Harima and Rashaya's Ain Ata over "sectarian tensions" or other "security-related incidents."

The ministry has set the new date for the polls in Jdita for May 29.

BAALBEK-HERMEL

In both the Baalbek and Hermel districts, people lined up at polling stations to cast their ballots for one of two lists competing.

In the city of Baalbek, the first list is Baalbek Madinati (Baalbek is my City) headed by Ghaleb Yaghi and backed by Charbel Nahas, and the second is the Loyalty and Development list, formed by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement with other March 8 parties.

In the border town of Brital, two main lists are running against each other. One list is backed by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, and another list is headed by the Tufayli family.

Hezbollah's former head is Subhi al-Tufayli, who is today an outspoken critic of the party and Iran.

Residents in the town told Al Jadeed TV that the voting process was running smoothly with no interruptions or incidents taking place.

A sergeant major in the Internal Security Forces was reported to have been wounded in an exchange of gunfire however between members of the Haj Hasan family in the Baalbek village of Hawsh al-Nabi due to an electoral-related dispute.

Elections also took place in the restive northeastern border town of Arsal amid a heavy security deployment. About 10,000 people are estimated to be registered to vote in the village.

Three lists are competing in Arsal. One is headed by the current controversial mayor Ali Hujeiri, the second "Arsal Gathers Us" headed by Bassil Hujeiri, and the third "Arsal First" list, supported by the Future Movement.

Baalbek-Hermel governor Bashir Khodor toured Arsal, assuring that the security in the village was under control. The interior minister visited Baalbek, Arsal and then Zahle as part of his tour of different polling stations.

Authorities imposed a curfew on Syrian refugees residing Arsal, citing security concerns.

The town had been the site of fierce clashes between the Lebanese Army and extremists from ISIS and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front in August 2014.

 

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