TYRE, Lebanon: What does Russian President Vladimir Putin have in common with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri? The answer is simple: elections. Huge billboards depicting Putin have been placed alongside those of the longstanding Lebanese Parliament Speaker in many areas in south Lebanon, particularly along the coastal highway to the city of Tyre, where Berri’s Shiite Amal Movement enjoys wide popular support.
Lebanon’s first parliamentary elections in 9 years are scheduled for May 6, while Putin is seeking a new term in Russia’s presidential vote set for March 18.
As in previous elections, Amal and Hezbollah have forged an electoral coalition that is widely expected to capture the majority of parliamentary seats allotted to the Shiite sect.
The main reason cited by southerners The Daily Star spoke to for hanging Putin’s posters was the key role he has been playing in supporting Syria’s embattled President Bashar Assad and fighting terrorism in the war-ravaged Arab country.
“A strong president, a strong Russia,” one slogan paired with the Russian president read.
“The Russian president is one of the leaders of the resistance axis and victory against terrorism,” a taxi driver in Tyre, who is also a self-proclaimed Hezbollah supporter, said, referring to the anti-Israel axis that includes Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
Commenting on Putin’s posters, Mustafa Haidar said, “Putin, whom we call Abu Ali in our city and who helped Syria destroy terrorism, will definitely win [the presidency].”
However, a farmer who works in one of Tyre’s fields seemed apathetic to Putin’s posters. “What brought Putin to our country?” said the farmer, who declined to give his name.
Mohammad Saad, a communist who lives in Tyre, joked, “Our streets have become as if we are in Moscow. It’s Lebanese-Russian elections season. There in Russia, there is a state. Here, we have sects and confessions.”
It’s worth noting that thousands of Russians, most of them women, are married to Lebanese nationals who went to the former Soviet Union to study under scholarships granted by communist Russia to Lebanese leftist parties. Kfar Roummane was once known locally – somewhat jocularly – as Kfar Moscow due to the strong connection the once dominant Lebanese communist party members in the town had to the Soviet Union.
In launching its election campaign in the Tyre-Zahrani district Saturday, where Berri is running for his parliamentary seat, the Amal Movement included Lebanon’s offshore oil and gas blocks as a main issue in its electoral battle.
One of Amal’s billboards depicted a picture of an oil platform in the sea with a slogan saying, “Your vote is a hope for the [oil exploration].”
Speaking at an Amal rally held at Berri’s cultural complex in the Radar hilltop in the Zahrani district, Khalil Hamdan, a member of Amal’s political bureau, said, “May 6 is the day of consolidating the national options. We call on those seeking to undermine confidence not to waste their time to discredit the candidates of this [Amal’s] list.”
Hundreds of Amal’s posters and billboards have been put up on the roads in the cities of Zahrani and Tyre, some depicting Berri and others the Shiite Imam Musa Sadr, the founder of the Amal Movement who disappeared while on an official visit to Libya in 1978, in addition to posters of a farmer working in his land and a woman doing housework.
“We will vote for the Amal-Hezbollah list. Berri is the leader who is in revolt against injustice. How can we not vote for him while he is the bearer of the message of the disappeared Imam Musa Sadr?” Zeinab Awali from Tyre said.
In addition to the Amal’s supporters, the rally in the Radar hilltop was also attended by a number of MPs from Berri’s parliamentary bloc.
“Israel is a racist state that runs contrary to our multi-sectarian nation. We will remain faithful to the policy of coexistence among the sects of the South and Lebanon, moderation and openness,” MP Michel Musa said, addressing the rally.
MP Ali Osseiran, also from Berri’s bloc, said: “The elections are the sound road to preserve democratic freedoms. It’s Lebanon’s right to defend its territory, water and oil. This is part of the resistance’s job.”
The generally peaceful campaigning season was marred over the weekend by an incident in the southern port city of Sidon, where Lebanese Forces’ posters were torn down.
The LF’s electoral billboards posted at the entrance of Sidon lasted less than 24 hours after unidentified assailants ripped them down in what appeared to be an anti-LF message in the mainly Sunni Muslim city, while other billboards were left intact along the highway to Tyre.
Some of the torn down LF posters carried slogans reading, “It’s time for accountability, not favoritism,” and “It’s time for a state, not a farm,” while others said, “It’s time for investments, not deals.”
Ajaj Haddad, the LF’s Catholic candidate in the Sidon-Jezzine electoral district, denounced the incident, saying that “their hatred and their non-acceptance of the other side’s opinion led them to tear down propaganda billboards for Lebanon’s project for a strong republic. It’s time for a state, not a mini-state.”
The LF is seeking to take the Catholic seat in Jezzine, a district that has been combined with Sidon for the first time under the new electoral framework agreed last year.