BEIRUT — Three months after Rafik Hariri's assassination sparked political upheaval in Lebanon, his son has emerged as the leading contender to head the next government.
Saad Hariri, a billionaire businessman, is set to trounce his opponents in the parliamentary elections that begin Sunday, securing his position as the dominant Sunni Muslim voice in Lebanon.
In an interview with the Monitor at the Hariri family's sprawling headquarters in West Beirut, Mr. Hariri vows he will pursue his father's economic and political reform policies, while predicting a tough battle in the coming months as Lebanon adjusts to independence from Syria.
"I think there are going to be challenges and issues that are going to be very difficult to resolve," says the tall and well-built Hariri, who bears a striking resemblance to his slain father.
The next period for Lebanon "is one of extreme change in every way," he says.
That change is already under way. The elections, to be held over four consecutive weekends, will be the first since the end of the 1975-1990 conflict to be conducted free from Syrian interference.
Having dominated its tiny neighbor since 1990, Syria was forced to disengage politically and militarily from Lebanon last month after Rafik Hariri's death in February provoked huge anti-Syrian demonstrations here.
The Lebanese opposition expects to seal an end to Syria's 15-year hegemony by forming the majority in the next parliament. But the country faces an uncertain future. The elections may be free from direct Syrian manipulation, but the run-up has been marked by a strong undercurrent of sectarianism amid the usual political bargaining.
The elections are being held under a law passed during Damascus' tutelage of Lebanon. Electoral districts were gerrymandered to suit the interests of Syria's Lebanese allies in parliament.
The law splits the country into only five electoral regions. This raised concerns from some Christian opposition members that their voices will go unheard in the large Muslim-majority districts.
The Lebanese opposition had called for the law to be dropped in favor of an alternative, which was used in the 1960s, that divided the country into much smaller districts. Many Christians argue that plan is more representative because it allows communities to elect local candidates.
But the two opposition powerhouses, led by Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze community, struck a deal with the formerly pro-Syrian Shiite groups, Hizbullah, and the Amal Movement to accept the existing electoral law and hold the polls on schedule. The move angered some Christian opposition members who felt they had been sold out.
Indeed, the run-up to the elections has seen some unlikely alliances emerging.
Hizbullah, once one of the most ardent supporters of Damascus, has teamed up with the Hariri and Jumblatt blocs in some districts. But Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese army commander and staunch anti-Syrian campaigner who returned to Lebanon in early May after 14 years exile in France, has been shunned by the opposition. The fiery former general is considered an unreliable ally, according to some senior opposition figures.
But dissension and splits are not confined to the opposition camp.
Several leading pro-Syrian politicians have announced they will boycott the elections. They include Emile Lahoud Jr., the son of President Emile Lahoud, and Omar Karami, the former prime minister who resigned amid street protests in February. He said his boycott was a protest at "corruption on all levels." But analysts say that the boycott by pro-Syrian figures is to avoid the humiliation of near certain defeat at the polls.
Hariri is confident that despite the splits, the opposition will secure between 80 and 90 places in the 128-seat parliament, with his bloc grabbing the largest share, making him the front-runner for next prime minister.
Although he is regarded as a shoe-in for the job if he wants it, Hariri will not confirm whether he will seek the premiership. "I will sit and wait after the elections and then I'll decide," he says.
Still, he has a clear vision of the first tasks awaiting the next government which will steer Lebanon into the post pax Syrian era. "My first mandate is to have a new election law," he says. "We owe it to the Lebanese to work on a permanent election law that will be ready for the next elections in four years time."
He also intends to complete the purge of the domestic security apparatus which carried out Syria's orders in Lebanon and which many Lebanese believe played a hand in the assassination of his father. But Hariri acknowledges that it is impossible to ignore neighboring Syria.
"We and the Syrians will be there for a 1,000 years so we have to have normal and regular relations with Syria," he says.
Relatively unknown in Lebanon, Hariri was selected by the family to take over the political reins after his elder brother, Bahaa, chose to remain in business. "I was the unlucky one," he jokes.
He may be a newcomer to Lebanese politics, but Hariri is no neophyte. He ran his father's massive construction company, Saudi Oger, for over a decade and has extensive financial interests in telecommunications in the Middle East. He is ranked at 548 in Forbes Magazine's annual list of billionaires with an estimated fortune of $1.2 billion. His father was ranked 108th with $4.3 billion.
Hariri has adopted his father's globe-trotting existence, holding talks with Jacques Chirac, the French president and a close family friend, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Middle East leaders.
A European ambassador who recently met Hariri says, "He is an impressive and smart figure. He is listening carefully to his father's advisors."
Despite the sudden rise to the top of Lebanon's political ladder, Hariri says he is keeping his "feet on the ground."
"It's not about me, it's not about Saad Hariri, it's about what my father wanted to achieve and that's my goal," he says.
Full name: Saadeddine Rafik Hariri
Educated: Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., with a bachelor's degree in International Business (1992).
Career: General manager of Saudi Oger construction company. Was managing director from 1994 until 1998. Also chairman of Omnia Holdings, and board member of Oger International, Entreprise de Travaux Internationaux, Saudi Investment Bank, Saudi Research and Marketing Group and Future Television.
Marital status: Married to Lara al-Azem and has two children, Hussameddine, 6, and Lulua, 3.