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National Agenda : Lebanese Cast Ballots for Apathy, Cynicism : Candidates gamely go through the motions in the war-torn nation's first elections in 20 years.

August 25, 1992|MARILYN RASCHKA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIRUT — Slip into a hospital gown and name your operation. The offer's free--but only for a limited time and only, according to reports, if you vote for a particular doctor who is a candidate for the Lebanese legislature in the current elections.

Because of the long civil war that broke out here in 1975, these are the country's first elections since 1972. The original four-year mandate of the 1972 legislature has been extended four times.

As the minimum voting age here is 21, that means no Lebanese under the age of 40 has ever voted--including many of the several hundred candidates now standing for the 128-seat Parliament in the three-week-long balloting, which began Sunday.

Another surgeon--this one specializes in the treatment of male impotence and has clinics in Beirut and Miami--promises that he will pay from his own pocket to repair the electricity in his district. Less affluent candidates offer to pay school fees or buy medicines.

But where are the believers? Unofficial polls reveal that few Lebanese are planning to vote. Apathy is widespread. Candidates are seen as self-seeking and corrupt.

"For years, I thought about what it would be like to vote," said Hiyam, a Lebanese woman in her mid-30s. "Now I have the chance and I couldn't care."

But don't tell the candidates. Cleanshaven and clad in suits and ties for their election poster photographs, they project an image of ultimate respectability. Candidates' names are often preceded by their professions, such as lawyer or doctor. If he lacks such high-flown credentials, the Parliament hopeful includes in his campaign flyers the names of lawyers and doctors who support him. One man even lists the names of his four sisters' husbands-- all from prominent Beirut families.

Campaign coverage has been complete. Rows of posters, like enlarged sheets of stamps, are stuck to every available wall and building in the country. Blacked-out teeth on the faces they display betray the work of graffiti vandals. One candidate, who bears an uncanny resemblance to former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, needs only a map of Lebanon on his balding forehead to complete the likeness. But his posters are stuck just a bit too high, out of reach.

These smiling paper politicians beam down on traffic jams, suspended from street lights that haven't shone in years. Other faces have been blackened by the smoke of burning garbage.

So what makes Sami or Adnan or the other hopefuls run? The prestige and perks of a parliamentary parking place rate high in Lebanese opinion. They say no member of Parliament has ever left that parking lot a poor man. They're slippery types, said one Lebanese.

Intentionally or not, poster hangers often reveal a particularly cynical sense of humor.

One, for example, fastened the image of his candidate to a telephone switch box--the lack of working phones in the city ranks with balky electrical and water service as a major aggravation for the Lebanese.

The poster of another candidate was plastered on an English-language ad for paint and appears over the word waterproof. And the images of several candidates found their way onto a billboard advertising high-octane gasoline, promising products "Under Continuous Quality Control."

The quality and control of the parliamentarians-to-be are exactly the problem. Syria prepared the lists of candidates who will run and of those who will win, charged a high government official. As for the handful who aren't pro-Syrian--they were put on the candidate list just to make the elections look fair, the man added.

Lebanon's present road map to peace, the Taif accords signed in 1989, calls for parliamentary elections, but it also calls for the withdrawal of thousands of Syrian troops from most of Lebanon.

Although no date for the elections is stipulated in the accords, the Damascus-backed government of President Elias Hrawi scheduled them between Aug. 23 and Sept. 6, several weeks before Syrian troops are scheduled to leave.

Promises and free surgery aside, the Lebanese are demonstrating their belief that the pen speaks louder than the sword--or scalpel.

"Yes, I'm going to vote," said a Lebanese in the country's north. "But I'm not going to write the names of the candidates. No, I'm going to put down 'water, electricity and garbage collection' instead."

An anonymous voter expressed an early opinion of a parliamentary hopeful--rumored to be deep into both drugs and arms sales--by pasting a notice warning Lebanon's youth against drugs over the top of the candidate's poster.

Lebanon's Maronite Christians, who lead the opposition to the Syrian presence, are boycotting the parliamentary elections en masse. Most of their candidates have withdrawn, and last week several leading Sunni Muslims followed suit, throwing further doubt on the validity of the vote.

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