U.S.-Backed Alliance Wins, Hezbolla Loses in Lebanon
BEIRUT, Lebanon — An American-backed alliance has retained control of the Lebanese Parliament after a hotly contested election billed as a showdown between Tehran and Washington for influence in the Middle East.
The alliance, known as the March 14 coalition, won the majority in the 128-member parliament with 71 seats, compared with to 57 for the Hezbollah-led coalition, according to official results announced Monday by the government. The results 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 winners celebrated in the streets, setting off fireworks and driving around in motorcades honking hours before the official results were even announced. The victory may have been aided by nearly unprecedented turnout. Preliminary results showed that about 55 percent of the 3.26 million registered voters cast ballots.
Though the Hezbollah-led challengers lost, 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 in this election well be for Michel Aoun, a retired general who aligned his party with Hezbollah. He appeared to preserve his bloc of seats but left the Christian constituency divided.
The March 14 coalition is a predominantly Sunni, Christian and Druze alliance. It 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.
The majority party in Parliament gets to build the next government and set the direction of national policy. Had the opposition won, 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.
The results formally leave the number of seats held by the March 14 movement nearly unchanged, with 68 seats, plus three independents aligned with them. But the vote promises to shift the balance of power in the country by providing the March 14 movement with a moral victory over Hezbollah. It also confers on them increased legitimacy, because last time the movement won, in 2005, it did so in alliance with Hezbollah.
The question now is whether Hezbollah will retain the power it had in the last assembly to essentially veto legislation in the Parliament as a powerful minority bloc.
On Monday, the March 14 leaders appeared to be sensitive to the narrowness of the victory in a nation that remains deeply divided. Negotiations over the formation of a government were expected to take weeks.
Around Lebanon, the interest in the contest was so high that during the voting on Sunday, 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.
Even with the majority expanding its base by a few seats, there was 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.
Three groups of election monitors were deployed for the vote, 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.
The Hezbollah alliance, also known as the March 8 coalition, had as its two main members Hezbollah and the Christian party of Mr. Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement. A Hezbollah victory would have represented another step in the evolution of the organization, 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.
Mr. Aoun 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.”By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
Published: June 8, 2009
In: Iran, Middle East
Tags: Lebanese-Americans, Return, Home, to, Vote
Location: Beirut, Beyrouth, Lebanon (load item map)
Marked as: approved
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