Lebanese Elections May Put Hezbollah In Charge

Lebanese voters go to the polls Sunday in crucial parliamentary elections. Some analysts are predicting a coalition led by the militant group Hezbollah will emerge the winner.

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The Lebanese go to the polls today in a parliamentary election that pits the governing Western-backed coalition against a Hezbollah-led block. The U.S. considers Hezbollah to be a terrorist group. The campaign has been bruising with accusations of vote buying from both sides. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut on the money that fuels Lebanon's elections.

DEBORAH AMOS: Arrivals have risen sharply at the Beirut Airport as thousands of Lebanese came home to vote. One of them is Toni Kadi(ph). He is here with this wife and two children from Camarillo, California.

Mr. TONI KADI: Well, because I think we have to do this. I mean as part of Lebanon we have to come and do our duty.

AMOS: In an election this close any additional votes can make a difference, which has led to corruption charges that political parties offered free airfare to boost support from abroad. This is what Kadi says when I ask him if a political party paid his family's fare.

Mr. KADI: Yes.

AMOS: Tell me about that.

Mr. KADI: We couldn't afford to do this. We couldn't afford to come, especially with the economy in the United States right now. They helped us out with tickets and everything else.

AMOS: This kind of outreach to voters is a tradition in Lebanese politics says Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. They've come to expect political parties to pay for airline tickets, pave the street, fix up a local school, even pay for gas on voting day.

Mr. PAUL SALEM (Director, Carnegie Middle East Center): Even in districts where the result is more or less decided still a lot money is spent.

AMOS: But in the Lebanese system, says Salem, money doesn't necessarily change any votes. In the country's sectarian-based politics seats in parliament are equally split between Christians and Muslims. There are further subdivisions for each sect. The outcome in most voting districts is fairly predictable, but the money that floats on Lebanese politicians to voters during election campaign serves another purpose, says Salem.

Mr. SALEM: For them, the occasion to vote is the only time that the elites care about them, and that's how they see it, the poor people. You want our vote, oh, you're going to have to buy it, you're going to have to pay for it. So yeah, money plays a very, very large role.

AMOS: Hundreds of international election monitors are in Lebanon to observe the polls.

(Soundbite of chattering)

AMOS: This is the headquarters of the National Democratic Institute, a Washington nonprofit that promotes democratic institutions. A Beirut hotel room has been turned into an office of electoral maps, computers and constantly ringing cell phones. Director Leslie Campbell is in touch with 50 NDI monitors across the country watching for signs of overt corruption.

Mr. LESLIE CAMPBELL (Director, National Democratic Institute): I think I know what corruption would look like if you could see it. But I highly doubt in Lebanon watching that we're going to see an actual exchange of money, one hand to another. What's already happened is that the local powerbrokers have figured this thing out.

AMOS: But that doesn't mean the election results are corrupt, says Campbell. Lebanon is one of the few Arab countries with a vibrant democracy.

Mr. CAMPBELL: I anticipate highly trained professional poll workers doing their best on election day to administer an election. We're not here to be sort of the election police on election day.

AMOS: On this election day, Tony Kadi came home from California for the vote. He'll cast his ballot in one of the few contested districts that will determine whether the Hezbollah-led coalition wins a first time majority in parliament.

Mr. KADI: We're praying hard, as I'm Christian, and I'm praying so hard with my family to give wisdom whoever is going to sign and vote just to make sure that we're doing the right thing.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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