- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2005

BEIRUT — Saad Hariri swept to victory in the first round of Lebanon’s post-occupation elections yesterday and immediately proclaimed the result a triumph for his father, the victim of a still-unsolved assassination in February.

?This victory is for Rafik Hariri. Today, Beirut showed its loyalty to Rafik Hariri,? the 35-year-old son of the former prime minister told cheering supporters. ?Today is a victory for democracy … freedom and sovereignty.?

Official results were not expected until today, but sources told the Reuters news agency Mr. Hariri’s anti-Syrian coalition had swept all 19 seats in the capital, the only area contested yesterday. Voting in other regions will continue over the next three Sundays.

Even before yesterday’s results, it had been clear that Mr. Hariri’s anti-Syrian coalition would win between 85 and 100 seats in the 128-member parliament, thrusting its leader into the prime ministership once held by his father.

Speaking to a small group of reporters, he suggested that the result should also be taken as a message by President Emile Lahoud, widely seen as an ally of Syria, which withdrew its military forces from Lebanon last month after a 29-year stay.

?I hope [Mr. Lahoud] sees it as gloomy. I want to see it in his eyes,? Mr. Hariri said.

Mr. Hariri spent most of his life in Saudi Arabia as a businessman and only returned to Lebanon in response to his father’s assassination, an act that sparked waves of protests that ultimately forced Syria to withdraw its troops.

In a sign of his confidence going into the election, Mr. Hariri returned to Saudi Arabia two days before yesterday’s balloting to pay respects to the royal family as King Fahd lay in critical condition.

His coalition is built around his own Sunni Muslim party, called simply ?Future,? and includes candidates allied with former Druze warlord-turned-socialist Walid Jumblatt and several Christian parties.

But the lack of a real contest in Beirut left many voters apathetic and somewhat annoyed.

Lebanon’s complex electoral system allocates specific numbers of seats to many of the country’s 18 recognized ethnic and religious groups — which in turn decide among themselves and each other who will win the seats. As a result, the great majority of candidates who will win seats have already been selected.

In Beirut, candidates from the Hariri coalition ran unchallenged for nine of the 19 seats.

Wire agencies reported that only 18 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots in the first six hours of polling.

?I will vote, but it doesn’t matter,? said Ali Fad’lah, 32, a taxi driver. ?The big men have decided who will be in parliament. Saad will win. I like him, but there is no choice anyway.?

The major surprise of the pre-election maneuvering was the decision of former prime minister and Army chief of staff Michel Aoun not to join the opposition.

Gen. Aoun called on supporters to boycott the election after his Free Patriotic Movement failed to get candidates attached to any of the lists in Beirut.

Joshua Mitnick in Beirut contributed to this report.

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