BEIRUT (Reuters) - Incidents of political violence including an assault on one candidate and an attack on the office of another are casting a shadow over Lebanon’s first general election in nine years.
The May 6 vote will take place using a complicated new electoral law. It is not expected to cause major changes to the government or its policies. Analysts expect Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri will head the next cabinet.
But the law has made the outcome less predictable in some places. This has sharpened local rivalries and is encouraging parties to campaign extra hard.
“The threats to candidates, men and women, are escalating. We expect more of them as we approach the election, and we expect an increase in violence,” said Omar Kabboul, the executive director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), a group of independent electoral observers.
“The outcome of the elections is uncertain. The more uncertain the outcome, the more fear there is within the parties and the bigger the agitation in speeches.”
Some 28 years after Lebanon’s civil war, nobody expects any major strife, but the country has been plagued by repeated bouts of political instability that have weighed on its economy.
The Lebanese system divides up power according to strict sectarian quotas, with parliament’s 128 seats split evenly between Christian and Muslim groups. The flare-ups reported so far have pitted rivals from the same sect against each other.
The army intervened on Sunday night to break up a confrontation between supporters of rival Druze parties south of Beirut in which guns were fired in the air, a security source said. The standoff spiralled from a row over electoral posters.
Also on Sunday, an independent Shi’ite candidate said Hezbollah supporters beat him up in their southern Lebanon stronghold, where he is standing against the two dominant Shi’ite parties Hezbollah and Amal.
Ali al-Amin said a group of more than 30 Hezbollah supporters accosted him while he was hanging an election poster in his home village of Shaqra in Bint Jbeil district.
“I accuse... a political side, which is Hezbollah, of arranging this incident and I hold it mainly responsible,” he said, adding that the group “could not tolerate the presence of one photo or poster of a candidate who is against them”.
Ali Saleh, the pro-Hezbollah head of the local council, said it was an “individual incident” that was now in the hands of the judiciary and security forces. “Ali al-Amine is a candidate ... and every candidate has the right to practice his media campaign and his electoral campaign,” he said.
The heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah, which gained legitimacy among many Shi’ites by fighting Israeli forces that occupied the south until 2000, has taken part in Lebanese elections since the early 1990s, enjoying an effective duopoly of the Shi’ite vote with Amal.
The parliamentary election has been postponed three times, chiefly because Lebanon’s fractious politicians could not agree on the new election law that was demanded by Christian parties.
It has redrawn constituency boundaries and introduced a new proportional representation system that experts say has been engineered to suit the dominant political players but has still left a good deal of uncertainty at the local level.
Last week, supporters of Hariri’s Future Movement attacked the offices of an electoral rival in the capital, breaking his windows, the rival candidate said.
First, his election posters were torn down, then his supporters were attacked after a rally, and then his campaign office was assaulted, prompting some volunteers to quit, said Nabil Badr.
Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, a Future Movement member, acknowledged on television that some of the party’s supporters had carried out the attack. He said they had been provoked by Badr’s bodyguards, who had themselves assaulted a local figure.
“All the parties are tense because they don’t know the outcome of this electoral law,” said Badr. “The electoral battle will be strong in Beirut.”
Reporting By Dahlia Nehme, Issam Abdallah and Tom Perry, writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Tom Perry and Anna Willard