Tuesday, August 7, 2007

BEIRUT (AP) — The pro-U.S. Lebanese government suffered a blow yesterday when its candidate in a closely watched parliamentary race conceded defeat to a little-known figure from the Syrian-backed opposition.

The vote in the Christian stronghold of Metn, north of Beirut, was widely seen as a proxy struggle for the loyalties of Lebanon’s Christians, who have been almost evenly split between the government and opposition.

Lebanon has been locked for months in a political standoff between the anti-Syrian ruling coalition, which is mainly Sunni, and the opposition led by the Shi’ite Muslim, pro-Syrian Hezbollah.

Official results of Sunday’s parliamentary race showed opposition candidate Kamil Khoury narrowly beating Amin Gemayel, Lebanon’s president from 1982 to 1988 and the head of one of the country’s most powerful Maronite Christian families.

Mr. Gemayel ran in his home district for the seat that his son, Pierre, an outspoken anti-Syria figure, held when he was killed by gunmen as he left a church in a Beirut suburb in November. Many supporters blamed Syria for the killing.

Mr. Khoury, backed by Michel Aoun, the most prominent Christian in the opposition, won by a margin of 418 votes, with 39,534 votes against Mr. Gemayel’s 39,116, Interior Minister Hassan Sabei announced. The turnout was 46 percent.

Mr. Gemayel said that he would abide by the Interior Ministry’s results.

A second seat contested Sunday, in Beirut, was won by a pro-government candidate who ran virtually unopposed.

Sunday’s votes were not expected to have any immediate or direct effect on Lebanon’s political deadlock. The government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora retains a five-seat edge over the opposition majority in parliament, which has not met for months because of the standoff.

But Mr. Gemayel’s defeat could affect the race to replace pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, whose term ends this year. The presidency is constitutionally reserved for a Maronite Christian, who is chosen by parliament.

Mr. Siniora’s backers see it as a chance to put in an anti-Syrian figure, and Mr. Gemayel had been seen as likely to run. His prospects are now far weaker.

Mr. Aoun, a former army commander, has said he intends to run, and the victory of the parliamentary candidate whom he backed could be a boost for him ahead of what is likely to be a deeply divisive and bitter race.

But the narrow nature of Mr. Khoury’s win will make it harder for Mr. Aoun to claim broad support from the Christian community.

Government supporters blamed Mr. Gemayel’s loss on the large ethnic Armenian community in the Metn district, suggesting that Mr. Khoury was not representative of the powerful Maronites, who are the majority in the district.

Armenians are largely Catholic or Orthodox Christian. Maronites are the largest Christian sect in Lebanon and once dominated the country’s politics.

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