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Polls Open in Southern Lebanon

Prague, 5 June 2005 -- Campaign trucks blared music and displayed posters of candidates as polls opened in southern Lebanon for the second phase of a four-stage parliamentary election.

Candidates of the pro-Syrian Hizbollah and Amal movements have joined together in a single candidate list. That's sparked predictions that their list will emerge victorious in the voting for 23 seats in the Shi'ite-dominated south.

But one unique aspect of Lebanon's election law means that anti-Syrian candidates -- such as Bahiah Hariri, sister of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri -- also are on the Amal-Hizbollah candidatet list in the area of Sidon.

Turnout is being closely watched among more than 665,000 men and women who are eligible to cast ballots in the south. Vibek Vlitjaard, an election observer from the European Union, says her team wants to ensure that every polling station has the necessary ballot papers:

"We've been following the distribution of [election] material," Klitjaard said. "One key question is whether all the necessary material is there. And we ask [this from] the polling station [electoral] committee members we observe as well."

In the 29 May polls in Beirut, the candidate list put together by anti-Syrian candidate Saad Hariri -- the son of the former prime minister -- won all the capital's 19 parliamentary seats. But that list also included pro-Syrian candidates.

Analysts say the so-called "steam roller" voting lists have hampered turnout -- leading to a lower-than-expected 28 percent turnout in Beirut a week ago.

Frustration over the Hizbollah-Amal list in the south has led many other Christian and Muslim politicians to pull out of the race and to call on voters to boycott the ballot.

But support for anti-Syrian candidates on the Hizbollah-Amal list is reportedly still strong in the south due to their role in opposing Israel.

"Everyone is resistance here," said Mohammed Mshaymesh, a voter in Nabateiah in southern Lebanon. "You are here in the South. Every house was shrouded in black (the color of the resistance)."'

The Amal movement has pledged to maintain an armed resistance against Israel. It is headed by house speaker Nabih Berri and the Hizbollah group, which is led by Sayed Hassan Nesrallah.

Six of its candidates are ensured a place in parliament as they are running uncontested.

Analysts say a sweep of southern Lebanon's 23 seats that is expected for the Hizbollah-Amal list will give that group 18 percent of the country's 128 parliamentary seats.

But the parliamentary alliances that are created after the four-phased vote are not expected to reflect the candidate lists during the election.