Record Voter Turnout In Crucial Lebanon Elections

Parliamentary elections in Lebanon on Sunday determine whether the pro-Western government will remain in power, or will be unseated by a group dominated by the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah. NPR's Deborah Amos, in Beirut, updates host Jacki Lyden.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Lebanese voters stood in line for hours today, a record turnout in a hotly contested election for a new government.

The counting has begun in this tight race between two coalitions that have campaigned on very different visions for Lebanon's future. On the one side is the ruling coalition, allied with the United States. The challenger is a political bloc led by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim organization allied with Iran and Syria. Both blocs are vying for a majority of seats in parliament.

NPR's Deborah Amos has been following the vote today and joins us now from Beirut.

Deb, what's at the heart of today's voting?

DEBORAH AMOS: Jacki, the key to this election is the Christian community where the turnout has been as high as 60 to 70 percent. Now the Christians are deeply divided with political parties in the two rival camps. But despite that rivalry, the atmosphere at the voting centers today was more like a holiday. There were honking horns and flags, people hanging around.

I met families that were divided in their politics. You had young people who were voting for General Michel Aoun's party, the Christian general allied with Hezbollah; and their parents were convinced that the current ruling coalition is the one that's going to deliver.

LYDEN: How does the Christian vote affect the outcome?

AMOS: This is all about numbers in parliament. There are 128 seats; and in Lebanon sectarian politics, the seats are allocated equally: 64 for Christian candidates, 64 for Muslims. Hezbollah has only fielded 11 Shiite candidates. They're expected to win. Another Shiite party Amal, they will win their allocated seats. So you can see that it takes a Christian ally. Remember there are 64 seats for the Christian candidates.

LYDEN: Deb, just quickly, why would the Christian vote, which I would have thought to be secular in its aspect, ally with Hezbollah?

AMOS: Not necessarily secular but certainly not Muslim. The arguments have been that the Christians, a minority, want to ally themselves with a power in the country. Some people argue that another minority, the Shiites in this country, are a better bet. There's also concern that Shi'a fundamentalism is less threatening to Christians than Sunni fundamentalism. And also they say that General Aoun has a economic platform, Hezbollah has a platform in this election, and the ruling coalition does not.

LYDEN: How does an election for parliament change the government?

AMOS: The election is for the parliament, but it's really all about the Cabinet. The majority in parliament gets to have a majority of Cabinet seats. That's where policy is shaped.

It's a very close election. It's very possible that it's so close the Lebanese will be forced into some kind of national unity government where both sides are represented.

Jacki, at the end of the day, there are some things that do not change here: The president and the head of the army is always a Christian. The prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim. The speaker of the parliament is always a Shiite Muslim. So that's how the system works here. No one party can win outright, and that is not going to change.

LYDEN: NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

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