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Monday, August 6, 2007

Opposition Wins a Seat in Lebanon - New York Times

Opposition Wins a Seat in Lebanon - New York Times: "August 6, 2007
Opposition Wins a Seat in Lebanon
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Filed at 6:55 a.m. ET

August 6, 2007

Opposition Wins a Seat in Lebanon

Filed at 6:55 a.m. ET

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) -- The government suffered a blow Monday when a little-known opposition candidate defeated a former president in a tense parliament by-election that showed the divisions among Lebanon's once-dominant Christians.

The vote Sunday to replace two assassinated anti-Syrian legislators turned into a showdown between the pro-U.S. government and opponents supported by Syria and Iran.

One seat, in Beirut, was won by a pro-government candidate who ran virtually unopposed. The second took place in the Christian stronghold of Metn, north of Beirut, in which a political newcomer allied to Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun defeated Amin Gemayel, who was Lebanon's president from 1982-1988.

Lebanon has been locked for months in a political standoff between the government and opposition that also has largely fell along sectarian lines. Shiite Muslims, led by the pro-Syrian Hezbollah, are predominantly opposition while the Sunnis form the backbone of the anti-Damascus ruling coalition.

Christians have been nearly evenly split between the two camps. The fierce division was clear in Metn's vote. Before dawn Monday, Interior Minister Hassan Sabei announced the results, declaring Aoun's ally, Kamil Khoury, the victor by a margin of only 418 votes, with 39,534 votes against Gemayel's 39,116. Turnout was 46 percent.

The defeat was a blow for Gemayel, the head of one of Lebanon's most powerful Maronite Christian families, who was running in his home district to fill a seat that his son Pierre held before he was gunned down in November.

The loss could severely hurt the elder Gemayel's hopes of running for president again. Aoun, a former army commander who is the most prominent Christian leader in the opposition, already has said he intends to run to replace pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, who term ends later this year.

The country's traditional power-sharing agreement among the country's various religious sects requires that the president by a Maronite Christian.

The impact of the vote is largely symbolic. Because of the political deadlock, parliament has not met in months.

Pro-Syrian Parliament speaker Nabih Berri has said he would not recognize the results of the two by-elections because they were called by what he and the rest of the opposition consider an illegitimate government. The by-elections were held despite the refusal of the president, Lahoud, to approve them, as required.

With the results, the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora still clings to its small majority in parliament, with a five-seat edge over the opposition.

Before the final results became clear, both sides in Metn accused the other of fraud. Each had supporters celebrating in convoys on the streets in Beirut and the Metn region.

Witnesses and security officials said partisans of Aoun and Gemayel faced off in a neighborhood east of Beirut late Sunday, with scores of Lebanese army troops and riot police deployed to prevent trouble.

One Aoun supporter was wounded in the hand when he was shot at by Gemayel supporters near the town of Bikfaya, Antoine Nasrallah, a spokesman for Aoun, told Al-Jazeera. Security officials said one person was slightly injured but did not say from which camp. Voting took place in a ''calm and democratic atmosphere,'' said a statement from the Interior Ministry.

Government supporters blamed Gemayel's loss on the large Armenian community in the Metn district, suggesting that Khouri was not representative of the powerful Maronites as a result. Armenians are largely Catholic or Orthodox Christian.

''Two-thirds of the Maronites vote for Gemayel and their seat goes to Aoun with 418 votes edge,'' the pro-government Al-Mustaqbal newspaper said Monday.

Gemayel on Sunday accused the major Armenian party, Tashnak, of fraud saying the group ''wants to impose its will on the people of Metn.'' He called for a revote in the mainly Armenian Bourj Hammoud area of Metn.

His comments received harsh criticism from legislator Hagop Pakradounian of Tashnak who denied Gemayel's accusations of fraud. The former president later said that he did not mean to insult anyone adding that ''Tashnak is a Lebanese party. No one doubts that.''

The opposition painted the win as a rejection of Saniora's coalition. ''Metn democratically defeats Amin Gemayel and the (parliament) majority with him,'' the pro-opposition daily As-Safir said.

The results could be a boost for Aoun as he prepares to stand for the presidency later this year -- likely be a deeply divisive and bitter race. The president is chosen by parliament, and Saniora's backers see it as a decisive chance to put an anti-Syrian figure in a post that has remained the strongest ally of Damascus in the country.

In Sunday's by-elections, voters were replacing legislator and cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel and lawmaker Walid Eido, a Sunni Muslim who was killed in a Beirut car bomb in June. Both were government allies and vocal opponents of neighboring Syria, which controlled Lebanon for 29 years until it was forced out in 2005.

In Beirut, the vote for Eido's seat was easily won by Mohammed al-Amin Itani, a candidate of parliament majority leader Saad Hariri's Future Movement, particularly since the Hezbollah-led opposition did not officially sponsor a candidate.

Gemayel and the government have accused Damascus of being behind the assassination of his son and a number of other anti-Syrian politicians and public figures over the last two years, part of what they deem is Syria's plan to end the majority's rule through attrition. Syria has denied the allegations.

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