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Heir apparent in Lebanon

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 27, 2005


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.

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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.