Cars and motor bikes festooned with fluttering yellow and green flags charge along the main drag of the "capital of the resistance," the south Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil held tenaciously by Hizbullah during the 2006 war with Israel. No one here obeys the 24-hour ban on campaigning before Sunday's parliamentary poll. Speakers blare music, vendors sell flags and CDs of the speeches of the Hizbullah chief, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
The town, ravaged in 2006, has been handsomely rebuilt by funds from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Iran. Shops and homes are newly minted. Scars of war are few, as few buildings survived. Families stream in from elsewhere in Lebanon and abroad to spend time with family and friends and cast ballots in familial places for candidates fielded by Shia power-brokers Hizbullah and Amal. Their joint list is certain to triumph here in their heartland. They do not even bother to post photos of candidates; flags are their messengers.
The ballyhoo carries on overnight everywhere in Lebanon and until voting began at 7am on Sunday. This is, after all, unruly, anarchic Lebanon where sectarian democracy was introduced by France in 1926.
Hizbullah and Hariri
The flags, popular songs and good cheer in Bint Jbeil mask the grim struggle between Hizbullah and prime minister Saad Hariri’s Future movement. Pollsters have predicted Hariri’s bloc could lose up to eight of the 32 seats the party held in the 128-member chamber of deputies secured in the 2009 election, the last to be held in Lebanon. Hizbullah and Amal, Hariri’s main rivals, could win up to 40 seats, gaining 14. There is concern that a major tilt in favour of Hizbullah-Amal could spark warfare, pitting Hizbullah’s ally Shia Iran against Future’s sponsors, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, the west and Israel.
Beirut’s second electoral district, Hariri’s home turf, is tense; there is an air of febrile desperation. Buildings, cars and shops sprout blue flags. Streets are jammed with unmoving cars. Party cadres at his election headquarters tell voters where to cast ballots, men and women in separate schools, and dispatch cars to convey supporters to the polls. Here there are nine colour-coded lists mixing Sunnis, Shias, Christians and Druze candidates tailored to appeal to the range of local voters.
In the middle school for girls, organisers outnumber male voters but along the street, flocks of women squeeze through the gate at the “Khaded” school, push their way up the narrow staircase and wait patiently in line to cast ballots, one by one. Inside each classroom, officials check voters’ credentials, call out their names, and hand over ballots. The papers are marked in a curtained booth and slotted into a plastic box. Voters’ fingers are dipped in an ink pot to show they have done their democratic duty and prevent them doing it again. A clutch of party agents garbed in list colours and seated at desks mark down the names of voters on their own lists. Ballot secrecy is an issue in some places, but not in all.
As we make for the next school, my driver Samir says a businessman who heads a different list is paying $200 for a vote. “The price goes up in the afternoon. My wife says to wait. Hizbullah doesn’t pay money only 20 litres of petrol” to drive to polling stations.
Flags are yellow and green and traffic a hooting snarled mass in the the south Beirut neighbourhood of Haret Hreik, the home ground of president Michel Aoun, leader of the Christian party usually allied with Hizbullah. Here Muslims, men and women, vote in separate rooms in one school and Christians at the municipality beside a massive modern church. At the head of the stairs to the main floor, Joseph Aleimi, a lawyer representing the right-wing Maronite Christian Lebanese Forces (LF), complains about the low turnout and brusque treatment of his list in this largely hostile environment.
Aida, a businesswoman whose husband hails from this constituency, speaks for thousands of Lebanese who travelled from near and far, braved traffic and shrugged off confusion and chaos to take part in this long overdue election where 583 candidates on 77 lists in 15 districts are casting ballots without assurances that change and reform will be the result.
"The organisation is much better than last time," Aida tells The Irish Times. "I was reluctant to come because I wasted four hours in line before. I came to show our respect to our leaders. I am very hopeful for a good outcome." This is the hope of all Lebanon.