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Polls Open in Lebanon for Critical Election


Lebanese voters go to the polls Sunday for a hotly contested parliamentary election that could determine the country's future alliances.

The election pits the current U.S.-backed majority in Lebanon's parliament against a coalition led by the Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran and Syria.

Opinion polls are predicting a close race, with only a few seats likely to separate the two main camps.

Some 50,000 soldiers and police have been deployed across the country to prevent violence.

There have been complaints, however, in other far-flung electoral districts such as the West Bekaa, bordering Syria. One teacher, who is in charge of a polling station in Baalbek Hermel complained that the "situation is chaotic."

At another polling station near the Christian Bekaa Valley town of Zahle, the situation appeared under control, with security forces guarding the area in an armed personnel carrier.

Lebanon's top political leaders, including those of the pro-Western March 14th movement such as Druze chief Walid Jumblatt, former president Amin Gemayel and parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri all went on TV urging supporters to vote.

There have been some charges of unfair election tactics, including the forging of national ID cards. Interior Minister Ziad Baroud insisted to reporters that he thinks such forging is difficult, if not impossible.

He says that no forging is possible, at all, on the personal identity card (issued to each citizen by the Interior Ministry) because of all the sophisticated technical and security features on the card," Baroud said. "He also notes that forging of ID cards and use of forged cards is illegal and those caught forging will be punished..

There have been other accusations by all parties of unfair electoral tactics such as buying votes, religious edicts to vote for a specific candidate and the flying in of candidates from outside the country to vote.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who is overseeing the election as an international observer, insists that the use of money to buy votes is probably equal on both sides of the political divide and that flying voters into Lebanon is not illegal.

"Both sides are complying with existing law, which permits, for instance, the purchase of airplane tickets all the way from Australia, or Alaska or Africa into Lebanon to vote, but that's existing law," Mr. Carter said. "It's not illegal. And whether the use of money from Iran is greater or less than the influx of money from Saudi Arabia is something that we can't quantify, and if it apparently balances out, pretty much equal violation on both sides, then we believe that the will of the people can be expressed freely, tomorrow."

Mr. Carter thinks that the worst potential problem is not with the actual electoral process, but what happens after the votes are tallied.

"The biggest potential problem is the vow by some of the leaders of the March 14th coalition that they will not participate if they lose, and that's something that will have to be addressed after the election is over," Mr. Carter said. "Nobody knows who's going to win, and we hope that all of the outside forces, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and others will stay neutral and support a coalition government after the election is over."

He points out that he's been a monitor for 76 previous elections and that "all of them have been in trouble in some way." But, despite the various allegations of fraud already flying in the air, he stresses that this is "not the worst election, in any case."


On Saturday, the leader of Lebanon's Maronite Christian Church, Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, warned the country faces a threat to its identity. In February, he said it could be dangerous if Hezbollah wins a majority.

On a recent visit to Lebanon, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden indicated that Washington may reconsider its military aid to Lebanon if Hezbollah and its allies win control of the government. The United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist group.

More than 3.2 million Lebanese are eligible to vote, and officials say thousands of Lebanese expatriates have returned to the country to cast ballots.

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