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Middle East: Lebanon Looks To Parliamentary Elections Following Syrian Pullout

Lebanon is turning its attention toward elections scheduled for May after Syria on Tuesday announced that it has withdrawn all of its forces from the country. Parliamentarians today were discussing a specific date for the vote. The transitional phase now underway in Lebanon is being closely followed by international monitors ahead of the ballot. Of particular interest is the security situation and whether Syria will influence the poll. RFE/RL looks at the transition under way in Lebanon after the 29-year presence of Syrian forces.

Prague, 27 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Syria's UN ambassador Rayssal Mekdad delivered the announcement to the United Nations yesterday, saying that all Syrian soldiers have left Lebanon, in compliance with Security Council Resolution 1559.

"I have just submitted a letter from his excellency, the foreign minister of the Syrian Arabic Republic to his excellency, the president of the Security Council, and to his excellency, the [UN] secretary-general," Mekdad said. "In this letter, Syria confirms the withdrawal of its troops, security apparatus and assets from Lebanon. This withdrawal is full and complete."

By today, a small team of monitors sent by Secretary-General Kofi Annan already was in Lebanon to verify whether the withdrawal has been completed.

Annan said in his latest report to the Security Council that he has been concerned about the next step in Lebanon's transition -- parliamentary elections scheduled to take place sometime in May. Annan is describing those elections as a test of the country's sovereignty, unity, and political independence.

Lebanon usually holds such polls in several rounds staggered over several weekends. Today, the date for the vote to start was being linked in political debates to parliament's vote of confidence for the new designated prime minister, Najib Mikati.

Pro-Syrian parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri said his political bloc has reached a deal to support Mikati's government in exchange for the scheduling of the start of elections on 29 May.

"The Liberation and Development Bloc supports the elections," Berri said. "And the date for the elections is 29 May. This is final and the parliament speaker will not accept anything else. The Liberation and Development Bloc, which has abstained from nominating Prime Minister Najib Mikati, will grant its vote of confidence to the government based on having the elections start on 29 May."

Berri's agreement also reportedly has been accepted by the three other main political forces that dominate the parliament -- the Shi'ite Muslim Hizbollah group, Druze opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, and the parliamentary bloc that is loyal to the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

The elections have been threatened by possible delay since the assassination of Hariri on 14 February. Hariri was killed after he accused Syria of interfering in Lebanon's domestic political scene. Since then, Syria has been under enormous international pressure to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.
"For 15 years, Syria has had a free hand in Lebanon and almost complete control. It has managed to install within the Lebanese administration, within the bureaucracy, the army, security services, parliament -- throughout the whole system -- pro-Syrian [officials] or people who owe their jobs to Syria."

Nadim Shehadi, director of the Center for Lebanese Studies at Oxford University in England, said the presence of Syrian forces during the past 29 years allowed it to influence Lebanon's domestic politics.

"The way Syria used to influence the elections was through its influence on politicians in forming the electoral law, in gerrymandering the constituencies and in forming lists," Shehadi said. "This influence has decreased significantly [because of Syria's troop withdrawal]. But there are still politicians who are of that agenda in Lebanon. A free and fair election will probably [start to] weed them out -- [but it probably] will take a couple of more elections to change the system completely."

Still, Shehadi said the political situation in Lebanon has changed dramatically because of the departure of Syrian forces.

"For 15 years, Syria has had a free hand in Lebanon and almost complete control," Shehadi said. "It has managed to install within the Lebanese administration, within the bureaucracy, the army, security services, parliament -- throughout the whole system -- pro-Syrian [officials] or people who owe their jobs to Syria. After 15 years, you can't get rid of all of these in one go. With a due process, it will take some time. Some of them have resigned on their own. And everybody realizes that the situation has changed radically."

Shehadi said one Lebanese group that could suffer as a result of the Syrian withdrawal is the pro-Syrian Hezbollah militia.

"Hezbollah has had its legitimacy as an armed militia in Lebanon dented by the Syrian withdrawal," Shehadi said. "The justification for its arms is no longer as watertight as it used to be. And this will be reflected in the elections. Hezbollah gained a lot of credibility and a lot of kudos because it was the resistance that got the Israelis out of Lebanon. If it does not recognize the change and accommodate to it, this will be reflected in the results of the elections."

Despite its status as a political party in parliament, Lebanon's Hezbollah movement is listed by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization.