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Lebanon Will Hold First Elections Free of Syrian Influence

Beginning Sunday (May 29), Lebanon will hold it's parliamentary elections by district over four successive weekends. It is the first time Lebanon will hold elections free of Syrian influence since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990. The Syrians may be gone, but what they have left behind is an election process that some say needs reform.

Final preparation at the Hariri campaign headquarters in Beirut. The city gets 19 seats in parliament. The Hariri group will win at least 9 of those, because its candidates are running uncontested.

Ezzat Kraytem, with the Hariri list, is predicting a more sweeping victory, just like in the 2000 election. He says, “Although we got the Syrian withdrawal, we didn't get the democracy we are asking for. And we didn't get a good representative electoral bylaw. That in my opinion is essential to have a free country.”

The election law has not changed. Neither has the electoral map. And for many in the opposition movement who took to the streets after the assassination of Rafik Hariri demanding new elections, that is precisely the problem.

Diman Younes is one of the young protestors who camped out in Independence Square for several months. He says, “Although we got the Syrian withdrawal, we didn't get the democracy we are asking for. And we didn't get a good representative electoral bylaw. That in my opinion is essential to have a free country.”

To the outside observer, the rough and tumble world of Lebanese politics is not easy to understand. Candidates run on "lists," or blocs, divided along sectarian lines. The system was refined at a time when Syrian influence was paramount. And it ensured that blocs of pro-Syrian candidates would always win.

Chibli Mallat is a Lebanese law professor. He says that reforming the electoral process is the next step for Lebanon. According to Mr. Mallat, “There have been great achievements in Lebanon. Mostly by people's power that is non-violent. The Syrians are out. The fact that the president of the republic, who is a Syrian, the continuation of politics in Lebanon is on the defensive and is likely to go. The problem is that the replacement is not to the quality that one is hoping for in this country. But that will take time.”

There is widespread agreement that the elections are a big step forward for Lebanon and the region. Fouad Ajami is director of the Middle East Studies program at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. He is from Lebanon and says this election is about the recovery of political life in Lebanon and freedom from "the big Syrian prison."

For Lebanon, freedom ended in April of 1975. What followed was 15 years of civil war splitting the country along ethnic and religious lines. In 1990 the war ended and the era of virtual Syrian occupation began, except in the south of the country. There, from 1982 to 2000, Israel held territory. Its presence was resisted by Hezbollah fighters.

For 15 years Syria controlled political, military, and economic life in Lebanon. Syria's grip on the country began to unravel in February of this year when the billionaire businessman and politician Rafik Hariri was murdered by a car bomb in Beirut. Many blamed Syria for the bombing, citing Mr. Hariri's outspoken opposition to Syrian occupation.

"I think Arabs knew that there was violence in the Arab world. And understood that this is the way the game is played. But the murder of a man who had not been a militia leader, the murder of a philanthropist who had no blood on his hands, I think it was a shock to modern Arabs," says Mr. Ajami.

Outrage within Lebanon and the international community eventually led to Syrian withdrawal just a few months ago. Mr. Ajami says what happens to Lebanon matters to the broader Arab world.

"An Iraqi dissident could come and live in Lebanon, a Syrian dissident could come and live in Lebanon. An Egyptian fleeing the rein of Hosni Mubarek in Egypt could come and live in Lebanon. That was always the place and function of Lebanon in the Arab world. Lebanon was never the biggest of the Arab countries but the freer of the Arab countries. And the most vibrant of the Arab countries," says Mr. Ajami.

The Lebanese will be asserting their new freedom over four successive Sundays as different regions of the country go to the polls and cast their votes. The process may not be perfect, but most of the people we talked to still plan to vote.