Anti-Syrians Confident In Lebanon

A supporter of opposition leader Saad Hariri, son of Lebanon's slain former Premier Rafik Hariri, flashes the V-sign during the fourth and last stage of Lebanon's parliamentary elections, in the port city of Tripoli, northern Lebanon, Sunday, June 19, 2005.
Pro-Syrian candidates appeared headed for defeat Sunday in Lebanon's first free elections in three decades - a win that would break Damascus' longtime domination of Lebanese political life and its parliament.

A pro-Syrian leader acknowledged a major defeat for his candidates and an anti-Syrian opposition official said the ticket's unofficial results indicated a near sweep in the contest for 28 parliamentary seats in northern Lebanon.

Suleiman Franjieh, a Christian former interior minister who is close to the family of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said: "We bow to the will of the people."

Whatever the outcome, however, the Christian-Muslim solidarity that emerged after the February assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has been deeply marred by sectarian divisions. The divide has only become more acute in the heated competition leading to the final round of voting in the north of the eastern Mediterranean country.

The ticket led by the slain prime minister's son, Saad Hariri, must win 21 of the 28 seats in the Sunday vote to gain a majority in the 128-member body.

"We're ahead and we're very optimistic," an official in Saad Hariri's camp said after their count indicated they were winning. The official insisted on anonymity because the final results are not out yet.

The unofficial tally by the campaigns of tickets backed by Hariri appeared to guarantee the opposition a majority in the new legislature and break the hold Syria has held in the outgoing parliament for more than a decade. The Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon in April.

Walid Jumblatt, the Druse opposition leader and ally of Hariri who was among the most vocal against Syrian control, declared victory.

"We have triumphed in the north," he said, calling the pro-Syrians in parliament "nothing but a bad minority."

There was no independent estimate of the early results, however, and official results were not expected before Monday.

Troops and police patrolled the streets as voters cast ballots in coastal towns, remote villages near the Syrian border and in the biblical Cedar mountains of the north. Candidates' supporters drove through cities and farming towns as polls opened, honking horns and waving posters and party flags.

About 680,000 men and women were eligible to vote Sunday.

Hariri's rival, Michel Aoun, thwarted the anti-Syrian bid to quickly rack up a majority in earlier rounds of voting. Aoun was previously allied with the opposition but then broke with it to link with a coalition of anti- and pro-Syrian figures. He made a surprisingly strong showing in Christian areas during voting last week.