- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

BEIRUT | Lebanon’s pro-Western coalition claimed victory Sunday night after an election that appeared to douse fears of a militant Islamist takeover in the tiny nation known for sectarian conflict and as a proxy for Iranian and Syrian interests.

Official results won’t be available until Monday, and the militant Islamist group Hezbollah refused to concede defeat.

Hezbollah, labeled a terrorist group by the United States and European Union, appeared to suffer from a high voter turnout that exceeded 50 percent — the largest since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-91 civil war.

The outcome appeared to avoid a crisis with the United States and Europe, where some analysts had feared that the Hezbollah-led coalition would win and force the United States and European Union to reconsider foreign aid, especially for the Lebanese army. The army is a key institution in a country that transcends sectarian divisions.

“This is a big day in the history of democratic Lebanon,” Saad Hariri, leader of the pro-Western March 14 coalition, told cheering supporters.

“Congratulations to you, congratulations to freedom, congratulations to democracy,” said Mr. Hariri, the son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

OTV, the television station of one of Hezbollah’s key Christian allies, former army chief Michel Aoun, conceded that the party’s candidates who challenged pro-Western competitors in several Christian districts had been defeated, preventing a victory for the Hezbollah coalition, the Associated Press reported.

Lebanese Broadcasting Corp., a leading private Christian TV station, projected the pro-Western coalition to win 68 seats in the next parliament, with 57 for Hezbollah and its allies and three for independents, according to the AP.

Hassan Fadlallah of Hezbollah refused to acknowledge defeat. “What matters to us now is that Lebanon turns a new page, one based on partnership, cooperation and understanding,” he told Agence France-Presse.

The rush seemed to start long before polls opened Sunday.

On Saturday, shops had begun to close and streets emptied.

By Sunday morning, Beirut looked like a ghost town, with most of its residents having left the city to vote in their home districts, often in villages.

“Today was a test of administrative procedures and security, so from those points voting was a success,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut.

“The biggest complaint has been overcrowding. Some people had to wait several hours to cast their votes,” Mr. Salem said after polls closed.

The streets of Beirut remained relatively calm, as the quiet of vote-counting turned to celebratory horn-honking of March 14 supporters. “Security becomes more of an issue as the night wears on,” Mr. Salem said.

Police and military troops patrolled sensitive areas to prevent any outbreak of sectarian fighting in the deeply divided nation.

Analysts said the next government would have to work with the opposition to prevent instability and fighting from a year ago, when Shi’ite Hezbollah-led forces briefly seized control of Sunni-dominated West Beirut.

Hezbollah is a longtime ally of Iran and Syria. It opposed a 2005 agreement in which Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon, ending a 29-year occupation.

Michel Wardeh, 30, a jeweler in the predominantly Christian district of Ashrafieh in central Beirut, said he voted for the first time Sunday.

In the past, he said, “there was no point in voting because Lebanon was run by Syria.”

As part of the country’s Syrian Catholic minority, he was surprised that his religious sect’s polling station was as crowded as it was.

Lebanon’s Christian community was divided between the pro-Western coalition and Hezbollah.

Mario Salameh, a Maronite Christian Catholic who runs a juice bar in Beirut, said he waited an hour to vote for the March 14 coalition although he was prepared for any outcome. If the other side wins, “I’d congratulate them.”

What appeared the most important for Mr. Salameh on election day was security. Ten army tanks could be seen from his juice bar.

As the evening wore on, there were scattered reports of violence, including an attack by Hezbollah supporters on one lawmaker’s home. Reports also said vehicles were smashed in Nejmeh Square in Sidon and fistfights erupted at polling stations.

Hezbollah had just 11 candidates, but it led an alliance that included the Shi’ite Amal movement and the nationalist Christian party led by Mr. Aoun.

The Christian vote had been expected to play a key role in the outcome.

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