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Middle east

Nervous wait for election results begins


Video by Selim EL MEDDEB , Lucy FIELDER


Latest update : 2009-06-07

A tense wait has begun for election results in a tight race that pitted a Hezbollah-led coalition backed by Syria and Iran against the ruling bloc, which has US and Saudi support. Most polls closed at 6pm Paris time (GMT+2).

AFP - Lebanon was anxiously awaiting the results of a hotly-contested election on Sunday that could see an alliance led by the Hezbollah militant group unseat the pro-Western majority in parliament.

More than half the country's 3.2 million eligible voters queued at polling stations to cast a ballot in an election being closely watched by Lebanon's neighbours and the international community.

Preliminary estimates put turnout at more than 54 percent, well above the 45.8 percent recorded in the last election four years ago and the largest since at least the end of the 1975-91 civil war.

"Voter turnout exceeded all expectations," Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said after polls closed.

At stake is whether multi-confessional Lebanon, frequently used as a pawn in regional powerplays, keeps on a pro-Western course or takes a tilt towards Iran, the regional Shiite powerhouse which backs Hezbollah (the Party of God.)

As the count got under way, analysts predicted that just a handful of seats were likely to separate the rival blocs in the battle for control of the 128-seat parliament.

Analysts said the winning factions would have to work with their rivals to form a coalition government and ensure the long-troubled nation is not plunged into a new cycle of political instability and violence.

Beirut resident Zuhair, 56, expressed fear of a Hezbollah-led victory.

"If the opposition wins, we can say goodbye to peace and a good economy and expect to be ruled by rockets," he said.

Under Lebanon's complex power-sharing system, the seats are divided equally between majority Muslims and minority Christians, who make up about a third of the four-million population.

Hezbollah itself fielded just 11 candidates but heads an alliance grouping the Shiite Amal movement and the Free Patriotic Movement, a nationalist party headed by Christian civil war army chief Michel Aoun.

And it is the Christian vote, which is divided between the rival camps, which will prove crucial to the outcome.

About 50,000 police and soldiers were on patrol nationwide to prevent any violence and there were no reports of serious problems, althugh three people were arrested for using fake identity cards and the army intervened in one city after some voters traded insults and blows.

International observers said most problems seemed to have caused by the high turnout, with some voters complaining of having to wait hours to cast their ballot.

Former US president Jimmy Carter, heading a team of international observers, said he hoped Lebanon's political parties and their foreign backers would accept the outcome.

"We don't have any worries over the conduct of the elections," Carter said. "We have concerns over the acceptance of the results by all the major parties."

Hezbollah, which is blacklisted by Washington as a terror group, has said that if it wins it would be ready to form a coalition with its rivals.

MP Walid Jumblatt, a key member of the Sunni-led ruling coalition, said if his camp wins it should open a dialogue with its opponents.

"If we win, we must extend our hand to the other side," he said. "We have no enemies within Lebanon."

Israel, which fought a devastating war with Hezbollah guerrillas in 2006, warned that victory for the Shiite militant group would pose a danger to the entire region, with Interior Minister Eli Yishai saying: "Lebanon will become a terror state."

The United States blacklists Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation and has warned that continued military aid will hinge on vote outcome.

Lebanon's former powerbroker Syria said the election was a chance for voters to throw their weight behind the anti-Israeli resistance represented by Hezbollah.

"I hope the Hezbollah alliance wins but whatever the outcome the two sides must work together," said Alef Mohsen, 22, a resident of the southern town of Qlayleh near the Israeli border.

The current majority swept to power in 2005 on a wave of popular anger following the assassination of billionaire former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a massive Beirut car bombing.

The murder was widely blamed on Syria, which denied any involvement, and the ensuing public outcry led to Damascus withdrawing its troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence.

The International Crisis Group said the vote was likely to revive rather than resolve the underlying conflicts and that forming a viable government would "require difficult compromise on all sides."


Date created : 2009-06-07