TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Prime Minister Saad Hariri Friday made his final call on the people of Tripoli to vote for the Future Movement’s candidate in Sunday’s by-election, amid fears of low voter turnout in Lebanon’s second largest city.
Hariri toured Tripoli throughout the day ahead of an electoral media blackout that went into effect at midnight, campaigning for Dima Jamali and meeting with various Tripolitan figures.
The by-election, set to be held Sunday, was called after the Constitutional Council in February unseated Jamali from Tripoli’s fifth Sunni seat in Parliament, the result of an appeal by unsuccessful candidate Taha Naji, who ran on MP Faisal Karami’s list in the May 2018 elections.
Jamali has been backed by Hariri, who heads the Future Movement, as well as former premier Najib Mikati and former ministers Ashraf Rifi and Mohammad Safadi.
“We hope that the people of Tripoli understand the importance of this battle, and that all we want is in the interest of Tripoli,” Hariri said during a joint news conference with Mikati after their meeting.
When asked why he hadn’t visited Tripoli since before the May elections, Hariri said he had been preoccupied dealing with the political bickering that marred the eight-month-long government formation process.
“If the government had been formed a month after the elections, believe me, you would have seen me a lot more in Tripoli, and there would have been more projects for the city,” Hariri said.
Speaking before Hariri, Mikati called on supporters to vote for Jamali. He said his support for Hariri was to “support the premiership in order to preserve the balance in the country, and for Tripoli to benefit from future programs because Tripoli is the basis for the premiership’s support.”
Rifi, a former justice minister and once a Sunni ally of Hariri, also met the premier during his tour. Rifi was expected to run in the by-election after an unsuccessful bid in the May 2018 elections, but he ultimately chose to back Jamali instead. During his tour, the premier promised development for the city, declaring that Tripoli had a more than 20 percent share in the projects and investments tied to the CEDRE conference.
The summit was held in Paris last year to garner international support to boost Lebanon’s economy and infrastructure.
The candidates who have registered to run against Jamali are Nizar Zakka, who is currently imprisoned in Iran, former MP Misbah Ahdab, Yahya Mawloud, Talal Kabbara, Omar al-Sayyed, Hamed Amcha and Mahmoud al-Samadi. However, Samadi last week withdrew his candidacy and threw his support behind Jamali. His name will likely remain on the ballot as he stepped down after the April 3 deadline to withdraw.
Samer Kabbara, the nephew of MP Mohammad Kabbara, had withdrawn his candidacy shortly before the deadline.
Kabbara told The Daily Star Friday he had decided to withdraw after he realized a “political decision” had been made that Jamali would win the elections. He said he initially declared his candidacy so that Jamali would not win unopposed.
He said he had not yet decided on whether he will boycott the election like Karami, or cast an empty ballot.
Karami has maintained his decision to boycott the election, and a source close to him said he won’t comment until after the election is over. He stressed his party’s stance that the elections “are illegitimate” as their candidate, Naji, should have been named the rightful MP by the Constitutional Council after the court found he had indeed won the May elections - if only by a single vote.
Many of the candidates told The Daily Star they interpreted the visits by Future’s top figures to the city as a sign the party feared a low voter turnout.
Most candidates said they expected the voter turnout to be a maximum of 10 percent, but said Jamali would win by a large margin.
Future has mobilized its main figures to boost Jamali’s campaign. Future’s Secretary-General Ahmad Hariri and Jamali have been holding regular meetings with officials in Tripoli, while Sidon MP Bahia Hariri and former premier Fouad Siniora visited the city and met with officials Thursday.
“When Hariri, Siniora, Bahia Hariri and Ahmad Hariri and the entire state come [to Tripoli] ... how much is their security costing the state? They’re using the state as an electoral machine,” candidate Ahdab told The Daily Star.
Future’s electoral machines have been working alongside those of Safadi’s, Kabbara’s and Mikati’s Azm Movement. People from Rifi’s machine have also been helping, a source close to him said.
A source at the Azm Movement said Mikati had called on his electoral machine Thursday to intensify campaigning and that “all efforts must be exerted to provide the biggest support for Dima Jamali.”
The source said all parties were doubling their efforts to get out the vote. Also, the source raised the possibility of Jamali’s opponents uniting to organize a protest vote for one of the other candidates.
While Tripoli is flooded with pictures of the premier, late statesman Rafik Hariri and Ahmad Hariri vowing unconditional support for their candidate, few billboards have featured Jamali herself. Tripolitans The Daily Star spoke to said they expected a “cold” election.
A series of Interior Ministry billboards on the northbound highway calling on people to vote have been posted, starting in Antelias but exponentially increasing starting in Batroun.
In Mina, 66-year-old Mohammad al-Qass said, “We are with Dima. ... We have Nizar Zakka, but no matter how much we love him, he is detained in Iran.” Qass went on to say that, while Jamali may not be familiar with the concerns of the people of Tripoli, Hariri is, “and what Hariri says goes.”