- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

BEIRUT — The son of slain Prime Minister Rafik Hariri swept Beirut’s parliamentary representation, the Lebanese government announced yesterday.

But although Saad Hariri overwhelmingly won the support of those who voted in the first election without Syrian occupation since 1973, many more people stayed home, sending a message about an election in which virtually no seats are legitimately contested.

The 27 percent voter turnout, compared with 34 percent in 2000, is the only sour spot in a process that looks more like a coronation of Mr. Hariri than an expression of democratic franchise.

President Emile Lahoud — who was essentially placed in office by the recently departed Syrian occupation and is likely to be removed as soon as the new parliament is seated — took a jab at the failure of the candidates to generate even modest enthusiasm for the process.

He specifically attacked the election law — which his supporters drafted and passed in 2000 with Syrian supervision — as failing to offer voters any significant choices. The low turnout “proves our theory that the present electoral law does not meet aspirations of the Lebanese people,” he said.

Habib Malik, a professor at the Lebanese American University in Byblos, said the election “clearly is a recycling of old faces as reformers and some new faces loyal to the old honchos.”

“And while there is a lot of anger — primarily among the Christians in East Beirut — because people had hoped for more of a contest, I am not that alarmed because this is clearly a transitional process for post-Syrian-occupation Lebanon,” said Mr. Malik, a supporter of the reform movement.

The elections will continue each Sunday through June 19, but under Lebanon’s system of allocations among numerous ethic and religious groups, few seats are open to real competition.

The parliament is split almost evenly between Muslims and Christians, even though Christians are about 30 percent of the population. The Muslim seats, meanwhile, are split between Sunni and Shi’ite candidates, though there are significantly more Shi’ites.

The positions of president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker are reserved for a Christian, a Sunni and a Shi’ite, respectively.

The breakdown of the population is not known, because Lebanon has not had a census in 50 years. There are fears that any attempt to revise the allocations would end in violence.

Sunni voters are automatically supporting Mr. Hariri’s ticket — with the exception of a few Islamist groups near the northern city of Tripoli — and the Shi’ites have divided their seats between the militant group Hezbollah and the former militia Amal.

With the two rivals sharing the same list of candidates and having comparable popularity and virtually no policy differences, there is little if any chance of their candidates being upset.

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