Monday, June 08, 2009

U.S.-Backed Alliance Wins in Lebanon

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN BEIRUT, Lebanon — An American-backed alliance appeared to retain control of the Lebanese Parliament on Sunday in a hotly contested election that had been billed as a showdown between Tehran and Washington for influence in the Middle East. Preliminary results reported on Lebanese television showed the alliance, known as the March 14 coalition, had managed to preserve its majority in Parliament. If those results are confirmed, they would represent a significant and unexpected defeat for Hezbollah and its allies, Iran and Syria. Most polls had showed a tight race, but one in which the Hezbollah-led group would win. The tentative victory may have been aided by nearly unprecedented turnout. The preliminary results showed that about 55 percent of the 3.26 million registered voters cast ballots. Lebanese television reported that the March 14 coalition, a predominantly Sunni, Christian and Druze alliance, held at least 67 seats out of 128 in Parliament. Though the Hezbollah-led challengers appeared to lose, Hezbollah itself — a Shiite political, social and military organization that is officially regarded by the United States and Israel as a terrorist group — will continue to be one of Lebanon’s most powerful political forces. The biggest disappointment may well have been Michel Aoun, a retired general who appeared to preserve his bloc of seats but left the Christian constituency divided. The interest in the contest was so high that during the day, people waited up to four hours to vote, many, including the elderly and the infirm, standing in the hot sun and in packed hallways. Thousands of troops fanned out across this small, fractured nation to keep the peace and stayed in the streets into the night as the results came in. Despite big crowds at polling places, though, there were few reports of disturbances, Lebanese and election monitoring officials said. “There is the fate of the country this time,” said Mireille Fiani, 45, as she stood crushed up against a crowd inside a school to cast her vote. The majority party in Parliament gets to build the next government and set the direction of national policy. Had the opposition won, for example, there was the expectation that Lebanon would not cooperate with the international tribunal set up to investigate the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former premier. Initially it was expected to be a very close race, with political analysts saying that as few as seven seats might have decided the outcome of the contest. Even with the majority expanding its base by a few seats, there was likely still the need, analysts said, to bring the opposition into a national unity government. Lebanon remains a divided and polarized nation that needs stability if for no other reason than to deal with its foreign debt of $50 billion. Official results were expected on Monday at noon here. Three groups of election monitors have been deployed, including former President Carter’s organization. But even before the race began, it was marred by charges of unprecedented vote buying. In the most contested districts, there were reports of votes being bought for as much as $2,000, and thousands of expatriates received all-expense-paid trips to Lebanon to vote. In one district, an ambulance brought hospital patients to the polls to cast ballots. Lebanon has long been seen as a proxy battlefield for regional and global interests, and so foreign powers from Washington to Tehran have paid close attention. But its politics are also intensely local, with power divided among sect leaders who jealously guard their interests. On one side is the March 14 coalition, which holds the majority bloc and is led by the Sunni Muslim Future Movement of Saad Hariri, whose father’s assassination in 2005 led to huge protests that forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. On the other side is the March 8 coalition, whose two main members are Hezbollah and the Christian party of Mr. Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement. If Hezbollah’s alliance had emerged victorious, it would have represented another step in the evolution of a once parochial Shiite militia that started as a guerrilla force fighting Israeli occupation of the south into a national institution that slowly has defined the identity of the state. Hezbollah has said that it would work to build what it called a “culture of resistance,” and define the enemy of Lebanon as Israel and the United States. It also said it would make it a high priority to build a strong national military. Instead, it is the March 14 group that appears to find itself having won greater legitimacy. When Mr. Hariri’s alliance first won in 2005, it did so as part of an alliance with Hezbollah. The two camps broke ties shortly after the election and for years since Hezbollah said that March 14 would not have had the majority if not for its help, and therefore represented an illegitimate government. Having won in opposition to Hezbollah would add a boost to the bloc’s legitimacy, political analysts said. Mr. Aoun, on the other hand, walks away with less than when he entered the race. The Sunni and Shiite communities are largely united behind their respective parties. Mr. Aoun gambled that he would be able to bring the majority of Christian voters with him into the alliance with Hezbollah, and appears to have been rejected by his intended constituents. That division was played out on Sunday in the election district known as Beirut One, where early results showed that General Aoun’s candidates lost. Soldiers in armored personnel carriers were stationed in the middle of Sassine Square as troops patrolled the sidewalks. Joseph Khoury, 47, was overseeing an election office for the Lebanese Forces, a former militia turned political organization that is aligned with March 14. He said that victory was essential to preserve Lebanon’s independence. “We don’t want Iran to occupy Lebanon,” he said, relying on what has been described as a scare tactic to drum up votes. Tony Badr, 22, a Lebanese Forces supporter, said that he was “disappointed” that “a large Christian party has aligned with Syria and Iran and their agents,” Hezbollah. But down the road, Christian supporters of Mr. Aoun said that the alliance with Mr. Hariri and his Saudi-backed March 14 group was more dangerous to Christians. “What am I going to tell you, Hezbollah is a party defending Lebanon,” said George Anid. “The Shia have simple hearts like us and they will protect us.”

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