Lebanese to Vote, with Syrians Gone

Lebanese voters in Beirut cast ballots in parliamentary elections — the country's first vote in decades without the presence of Syrian troops. Amid low turnout, the slate led by the son of assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri won, as expected. Voter apathy was high, with many Lebanese complaining that the country's political system — based on clans and religious allegiance — remains unchanged.

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Lebanese voters went to the polls today in Beirut in what was the first of a four-phase national parliamentary election. The vote was the first since street demonstrations and international pressure forced neighboring Syria to finally end its 30-year military presence in Lebanon. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Beirut.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Small armies of political party workers manned the entrances to Beirut's polling stations today. They handed out slips of paper with the names of their candidates, all to the beat of political anthems blaring from nearby loudspeakers. The atmosphere was festive, but party workers like this 21-year-old student named Maherai Tanni(ph) agreed there wasn't much of a contest at the polls.

Mr. MAHERAI TANNI: No, there's no competition at all. All of the people are electing one person, so let it be.

WATSON: That one person would be Saad al-Hariri, the 35-year-old son of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was assassinated by a car bomb last February. Today Saad led a slate of candidates under his father's name. The Hariri candidates ran unopposed for nine of Beirut's 19 parliamentary seats. Some voters, like this man named Fouad Sadhi(ph), are putting their trust in the younger Hariri, even though he's untested.

Mr. FOUAD SADHI: We don't know yet, but we think that he might be able to do the job. With the team that he has, of course, he's not alone, so he has a good team, so hopefully they'll be able to accomplish something.

WATSON: But many others, like teacher Michel Schmai(ph), did not share their enthusiasm for the day's vote.

Mr. MICHEL SCHMAI: Very angry, and I'm not going to vote. There is no election. It's not an election.

WATSON: In fact, many Lebanese seem to share this view. Government officials say less than 30 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls today. That's a stark contrast to two months ago when a coalition of anti-Syrian parties organized more than a million people into the largest street demonstration in Lebanese history.

The protests may have succeeded in pushing out Syrian troops, but Lebanon's system of rule by clans based on sectarian allegiance remains. Top government positions are reserved for politicians from each of the country's main religious communities. Lochman Saliam(ph) is the founder of a non-governmental organization that printed and distributed protest ballots against today's vote. The group wants to do away with Lebanon's sectarian political system.

Mr. LOCHMAN SALIAM: The system is continuing to defend itself through families, through confessions, through fake equilibrium. And it's almost forbidden to think Lebanon following new or different terms of reference.

WATSON: Lebanese across the rest of the country will complete parliamentary elections over the next three weeks. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Beirut.

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