05/30/2005, 00.00
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Hariri wins in Beirut but few bother to vote

by Youssef Hourany
Patriarch Sfeir is disconcerted by the low turnout even if the vote itself is positive step.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Despite a turnout of 28 per cent in Beirut, the UN envoy and EU observers called the elections "a celebration of democracy" with Saad Hariri's slate sweeping to victory.

These are first indications coming from Sunday's vote in the Lebanese capital which is seen by many as an anti-Syrian result. However, the low turnout, which has led many papers to talk about the Lebanese going from euphoria to apathy, has left the Maronite Patriarch, Card Nasrallah Sfeir, disconcerted.

He is hopeful that the elections might be the first step on the road to change, but lamented the low turnout, especially among Christians.

For his part, General Michel Aoun, who recently broke with his anti-Syrian allies and whose partisans crisscrossed Beirut's Christian neighbourhoods wearing t-shirts urging people not to vote, told private TV channel LBC that the low turnout showed how much the Lebanese were disillusioned or desperate.

"These elections," according to UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, "represent a significant step for the Lebanese people in their quest for recovering their full political independence and sovereignty".

By contrast, speaking to a large crowd that had gathered in Bkerke for mass to thank him for his action in favour of the country, Patriarch Sfeir said that the results showed "people's confusion about the elections, elections during which nine Beirut members of the National Assembly were elected by acclamation since they ran unopposed, not to mention those elected the same way in southern Lebanon".

Although such elections are not in his opinion a "healthy sign", the Patriarch still said he was hopeful that the vote "will be the first step on the road to change from the current type of politics that led to the huge debt that oppresses us and to widespread emigration among young people, both of which are impoverishing Lebanon. After all, the young are the true wealth of the country".

For Cardinal Sfeir, ideally there would be "two large parties, each with clear objectives, each drawing support from every community like in other countries with a democratic tradition".

The winner of yesterday's electoral round, Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, said his victory was due "to spilt blood".

He added that this victory should be carried to the rest of the country, but denied he intended to "eliminate" the rest of the anti-Syrian opposition. Instead, he called for "dialogue in favour of national unity".

Despite voters' indifference—111,963 votes out of 420,630 registered voters (including voters living abroad who could not vote) for a total of 28 per cent compared to 35,7 per cent in 2000 according to Interior Ministry figures—the absence of incidents remains a positive sign.

Eyewitnesses told AsiaNews that for the first time voting regulations were respected throughout the capital's many polling stations, which for many international observers meant the "Lebanese won".

Nguyen Dong, head of the UN elections mission, told AsiaNews that "it is a sign of a willingness to change when a government invites foreign observers. The arrival of experts opens new horizons and creates new circumstances".

He also said there was a "national consensus" over the need to reform the electoral law, adding that "if the Lebanese authorities so desire, we are at their disposal to elaborate a new electoral law".

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