- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

BEIRUT — An anti-Syrian coalition yesterday was declared the winner of Lebanon’s marathon parliamentary elections and its leader, Saad Hariri, immediately reached out to opposition groups whose support he would need to unseat pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud.

“We have to maintain dialogue with everybody. We will not close the door on anyone,” Mr. Hariri told reporters after the announcement that his coalition had swept all 28 seats at stake in Sunday’s final round of voting.

The result gave 72 of the 128 seats in the parliament to his Future bloc of Sunni Muslims, Druze and some Christians — a solid majority but short of the two-thirds required to remove a sitting president under the constitution.

Cars bearing Hariri posters and flags moved through the streets of Beirut with horns honking after the announcement, while news reports from the northern city of Tripoli showed huge processions of Hariri supporters filling the streets Sunday night and yesterday morning.

Mr. Hariri, thrust into prominence after the assassination in February of his father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, refused to say yesterday whether he would assume the post of prime minister, which is now his for the asking. He said he would consult with leaders of his coalition before deciding.

The group, dominating Lebanon’s first elections free of Syrian military influence in 30 years, had expected an easy victory until a group led by Michel Aoun, a Christian and former general, exceeded expectations in the third round of voting in mainly Christian areas on June 12.

That left Mr. Hariri and his allies in the one-time Christian militia known as the Lebanese Forces needing to win 21 of 28 seats on Sunday to be assured of a majority.

“The north has decided the character of the new parliament and given the absolute majority to the opposition,” Mr. Hariri said yesterday.

The outcome focuses attention on Mr. Lahoud, who is considered a proxy of Syria, which was forced to withdraw its troops in April after Rafik Hariri’s still-unsolved assassination sparked huge anti-Syrian protests.

Any attempt to remove Mr. Lahoud would require the parliamentary votes of supporters of Mr. Aoun, who helped lead the anti-Syrian movement during 14 years of exile in France.

Upon his return to Lebanon in early May, Mr. Aoun quickly broke with Mr. Hariri and other anti-Syrian opposition figures — including Druze leader and former warlord Walid Jumblatt.

The former general denounced the nation’s complex election system, accused other political leaders of corruption and criticized the political establishment for allowing the country to run up an estimated $35 billion debt.

Having alienated his natural allies, Mr. Aoun joined forces with his former enemies, pro-Syrian Christian lawmakers. This group, together with pro-Syrian Shi’ite parties Hezbollah and Amal, captured the 56 seats not taken by Mr. Hariri’s coalition.

In a postelection press conference, Mr. Aoun accused Mr. Hariri of spreading sectarian hatred and said he would not accept a role in the new government.

“We will be in the opposition. We can’t be with a majority that reached [power] through corruption,” he said.

However, his failure to gain any seats Sunday leaves him without much leverage unless the new government decides it wants his help to remove Mr. Lahoud, who as president exercises broad control over the nation’s security forces.

Some Hariri opponents yesterday rejected the election results, charging voting irregularities much as the anti-Syrian opposition itself used to say during elections under Syrian occupation.

Election monitors from the European Union said the voting was free of major corruption, but that Lebanon should reform its complicated sectarian system of allocating seats to different religions, as well as reform what it described as unregulated election spending.

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