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Middle east

Pro-Western parties expect to keep majority in parliamentary vote

Video by Selim EL MEDDEB , Lucy FIELDER


Latest update : 2009-06-08

Lebanon's ruling pro-Western bloc expects to defeat the Hezbollah-led opposition in Sunday's parliamentary elections, an official with the ruling coalition said. Early results showed a high voter turnout of at least 54 percent.

AFP - Lebanon's pro-Western ruling coalition said it expected to cling on to its majority in parliament after a hotly contested election race against an alliance led by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

"Indications so far are that our camp will maintain its majority in parliament," an official from the so-called March 14 grouping said on condition of anonymity.

The television station owned by majority leader Saad Hariri said his camp expects to win 70 seats in the 128-member parliament against 58 for the Hezbollah alliance.

Celebrations broke out in several cities as television stations began airing preliminary results from the election, whose outcome is being closely watched by Lebanon's neighbours and the international community.

More than half the country's 3.2 million eligible voters queued at polling stations to cast a ballot in the multi-confessional country whose modern history has been scarred by wars, sectarian unrest and political instability.

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.

Analysts have predicted that just a handful of seats were likely to separate the rival blocs in the battle for control of parliament.

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

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 was 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 had said that if it won 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, had 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.

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