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Voters flock to Lebanon's knife edge vote

Lebanon election 2009
No side is likely to win a clear majority in sharply divided Lebanon

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Beirut

All flights to Beirut are full and most hotels in the city are booked, as tens of thousands of Lebanese abroad come home to vote in Sunday's parliamentary election.

Throughout the campaign, political parties have been criticised, and have accused each other of spending millions on offering free trips to Beirut in exchange for votes.

"I think there's been a huge amount of money spent here, per capita more than anywhere else on any election in the world, and this money distribution certainly deligitimises the election," says Karim Makdisi, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut.

But between hugs and kisses in the crowded arrivals hall of Rafik Hariri International Airport, Rima said she had paid for her own passage home.

"I had to be part of this historic moment, our future is being decided" said Rima, a student at Harvard University in the United States.

Election posters in Tripoli
The US has said its continued military aid will depend on the outcome of the vote

Rima says she saw it as her duty to come back and vote for the US backed alliance called 14 March coalition - the same people that gave her a scholarship to study at Harvard.

"I'll be voting for people who support the youth, who I believe will bring us better future," she said.

In the southern suburbs of Beirut, a 15-minute drive from the airport, Ayman who studies computer science at the Lebanese American University, gave similar reasons for voting for the opposition bloc which is led by the Shia group Hezbollah and backed by Iran and Syria.

"They take care of the young people, they give us scholarships that we can use to study anywhere we want, they make sure we get good education," he said. "The least I can do is give them my vote."

Powerful ally

Hezbollah's rallying cry is resistance against Israel, which remains one of the group's main attractions to the mainly-Shia Muslim inhabitants of southern Lebanon.

"There are thousands of people in Lebanon who are under a direct threat from Israel, and the state has never done anything to protect these people, while Hezbollah over the years has shown that it can," says Karim Makdisi.

What everyone wants to know is what will the United States do if the opposition wins. Will they simply stop talking to the government, or will they be mature enough to deal with it? I think that's what will really reveal Obama's cards
Karim Makdisi

But what gives the Hezbollah-led bloc a real chance of winning the election, is the group's alliance with other parties, including the powerful Christian Free Patriotic Movement.

"I am Christian and I don't relate to Hezbollah on religious or ideological level, but I would vote for them because I like many other aspects like the resistance, fighting Israel as well as social issues that they are better at tackling," says Antoine, who is an architecture student.

Lebanon is so divided that neither the Hezbollah-led block, nor the US backed 14 March alliance can secure an overwhelming victory in this election.

The vote is unlikely to bring a dramatic change to the composition of the current Lebanese government, of which Hezbollah is already part.

But it could strengthen Hezbollah's position, give it more power in forming the cabinet and test Lebanon's relationship with the West, especially the United States which considers Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.

"What everyone wants to know is what will the United States do if the opposition wins," says Karim Makdisi.

"Will they simply stop talking to the government, or will they be mature enough to deal with it? I think that's what will really reveal Obama's cards."

Big questions avoided

Lebanese election worker
Election workers cast their votes early so they could supervise Sunday's polling

In his closely-observed speech in Cairo on Thursday, US President Barack Obama emphasised his commitment to any government that reflected the will of the people.

But here, this positive rhetoric had been overshadowed by an earlier statement that Washington's relationship with Beirut would depend on the outcome of Sunday's vote.

On his recent visit, Vice-President Joe Biden said that depending on the election result, Washington could reconsider the aid it currently provides to the Lebanese army.

In response, Hezbollah's chief Hassan Nasrallah announced that Iran would happily help the Lebanese army instead.

"I don't want Iran in this country, I don't want Lebanon ruled by Hezbollah," said one of the 14 March supporters at a recent rally in Beirut.

No-one here seems to be paying much attention to problems in healthcare, education, or issues like corruption and poverty, which normally dominate election campaigns elsewhere.

"There's been too much focus on the importance of the election, but substantive policy debates have not taken place. No-one is asking why we are failing in economic and social policies, why is poverty on such a dramatic rise, why ordinary citizens don't have water and electricity. All these questions have simply been avoided," says Karim Makdisi.

Lebanon has no shortage of problems, but at the moment everyone seems too preoccupied with deciding which direction their country should take.



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