Talal Suleiman, editor of the important Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, estimates that about $1 billion will be spent on Sunday's election in Lebanon. He's not referring to the official sum in the state budget, or to the $20 million invested in election supervision. A billion dollars is the amount he believes the candidates have spent on buying votes - an average of $5 million per candidate, says Suleiman.
In the city of Zahle, votes cost as much as $1,500 apiece, according to local reports, much more than the $250 Suleiman has calculated for each voter. Zahle, which has seven seats in parliament, is the main battleground between candidates from the pro-Western coalition led by Saad Hariri and the Hezbollah coalition. Zahle's votes are expected to determine who wins the next majority in Lebanon.
The vote trading in Zahle, a city known for producing arak, stems not only from politicians who believe they have Lebanon's best interests at heart or merely yearn for a seat in parliament. In recent years, especially since the Second Lebanon War, Lebanon has become more like a wrestling match in which the local players are merely stand-ins for much larger powers and interests.
Israel is worried that the election will be won by Hezbollah and its allies - Nabih Beri's Shi'ite party Amal and former general Michel Aoun's Maronite Christian party. The presumption is that such a victory would increase the danger of war between Israel and Lebanon. It has already been forgotten that the two Lebanon wars and the offensives in between took place when Hezbollah was not in the coalition or participating in government.
This week, Hezbollah's representative in South Lebanon said a war between Israel and Lebanon is possible only if the coalition led by Hariri continues to rule. He says Israel will only dare attack if it feels that Hezbollah has serious opposition at home. Beri, parliament's outgoing speaker, called on voters to vote in such a way that "the results will worry Israel .... Let us show Lebanese unity that will not allow [Israel] to attack and rely on the division that was characteristic during the Second Lebanon War."
Egypt and Saudi Arabia share Israel's concern about the election; in recent weeks they have taken pains to help Hezbollah's rivals. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak exposed Hezbollah's activity in his country with much fanfare; just last week, with the election on the way, he ordered that the terror suspects stand trial.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has funneled huge sums to candidates from Hariri's group to ensure their victory. The timing of the report in the German magazine Der Spiegel about Hezbollah's involvement in the assassination of Hariri's father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, was no coincidence, and the exposure of the "Israeli spy ring" was also meant to play an important part in the campaign.
An electoral defeat for Hariri's group will be perceived as a victory for Hezbollah, which has berated Arab leaders over the past year, but also for Iran, which will become Lebanon's most influential player.
Syria, for its part, is somewhat on the fence. Though it wants a Hezbollah victory, President Bashar Assad understands that such an outcome could erode his influence in Lebanon vis-a-vis Iran, especially now that he seeks to form closer relations with the United States. Will Assad be able to offer Lebanon as a dowry to the Americans when Iran wields the most influence there?
The inter-Arab rivalry is also affecting Egypt's relations with Qatar, which worked wonders last year when it brought Lebanon's rival parties together to sign a compromise agreement reestablishing the government. Egypt's ability to influence events in Lebanon nearly disappeared due to the intervention of a country "whose entire citizenry could fit into one big hotel," as the editor of the Egyptian newspaper Ruz al-Yusuf described Qatar.
It's no wonder then that in the tumultuous election rallies of recent weeks, the main candidates have focused on accusing their rivals of serving outside interests. Fouad Siniora's government has been accused of being a puppet of the United States and Israel. Hezbollah and its partners have been accused of being Iran's puppets.
But one key issue has been almost absent from the campaign: How will Lebanon itself - its economy, unemployment rate, reconstruction, education and health services - be affected by the election's outcome? The candidates, like their voters, consider such matters a subject for discussion after the vote. In a country fractured into 18 different religious and ethnic groups, each group's first order of business is to get its representatives into parliament. What comes next can be left to negotiation.
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