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Volume 23, Number 5September/October 1972

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To The Poles

Photographed and written by William Tracy

After months of primaries, America may seem to be the only country in the world holding elections this year, but it isn't. Last spring voters in the Republic of Lebanon also went to the polls after a campaign that would have made James Michael Curley stand up and cheer.

That there is campaigning at all in Lebanon may occasion surprised comment in quarters of the United States which may have failed to note that Lebanon has a president, a parliament and free elections. Yet Lebanon has been holding elections every four years since it won independence from France in 1947 and set up a republic. Its government was broadly modeled after the French Third Republic and its electoral process closely, if unconsciously, after South Boston in its gaudiest moments .

The small nation's founding fathers probably expected a higher degree of decorum than that, of course, but with a perversity that is only possible in a true democracy, Lebanon soon adopted a free-wheeling, circusy style of politicking once common in the livelier sections of New York, Jersey City and Chicago. This has led to sound trucks, rallies, free rides to the polls and, above all, to that most reliable and most visible feature of political campaigns: the political poster. In America, which has substituted the low hedge for the garden wall, there is a built-in restriction on overdoing the ubiquitous poster. In Lebanon it is just the reverse. Political workers not only plaster posters on utility poles but on trees, rooftops, movie billboards and along the miles of high, irresistible walls that line most of the older streets and avenues.

During this year's campaign the government passed laws to limit the areas which candidates could legally blanket with their likenesses: no posters on public buildings, schools, hospitals, or places of worship; also no candidate's portrait hung next to that of the president, who proclaimed his official neutrality. But except for the fact that some traffic signs actually remained legible—in itself a vast improvement over previous years—it was to little avail. With 409 candidates running for 99 seats, portraits bloomed everywhere: old and young, bald and balding, mustached and bespectacled, smiling and scowling. Under cover of darkness, crews of young men with ladders moved along main streets like locusts, apparently guided by one rule of thumb: if it's flat, glue a poster to it.

The effect was rather like a blight sweeping through a potato field, and public reaction ranged from fury (when beaming faces of candidates were plastered on historical monuments) to laughter (when posters appeared in amusing proximity to inappropriate signs or movie billboards).

Responses also varied according to occupation. Tourists in search of the exotic Middle East were dismayed and owners of buildings were apoplectic. Photographers and portrait painters were delighted, as were printers (who, with orders of up to 500,000 posters per candidate pouring in, coined money), members of the candidate's party (who saw votes in every poster), and, naturally, the candidates themselves who, even if they didn't win, can enjoy fading, weathered pictures of themselves throughout Lebanon for months to come.

This article appeared on pages 30-32 of the September/October 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1972 images.