Anti-Syrian sweep in Lebanon boosts opposition

After the fourth vote, an alliance led by Saad Hariri is set to hold the majority of seats in the new parliament.

A victory in Sunday's nail-biting final round of Lebanon's elections gave an anti-Syrian alliance enough seats to secure a majority in the country's new parliament, shutting one of the last doors on Syria's political influence over its neighbor.

The opposition alliance, headed by Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri, swept all 28 seats in Sunday's final northern round giving his alliance 72 of 128 seats in the new parliament, according to unofficial results. Official results were due to be confirmed after deadline Monday.

The immediate implications of the election are:

• The government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati formally resigns as of midnight Monday but will remain in office as caretaker until a new prime minister is ap-pointed after consultations between the president and the parliament. The parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, also steps down until the new parliamentarians reelect him or select a replacement.

• President Emile Lahoud, Syria's most trusted ally in Lebanon, probably will remain in office to serve out a controversial additional three-year term, analysts say. Mr. Lahoud, a Maronite Catholic whose pro-Syrian sympathies had alienated him from his own community, has refashioned himself as a champion of the Christian community. He has won the tacit support of the influential Maronite patriarch and allied himself to Michel Aoun, who has emerged as the undisputed political leader of the Christian community.

"I don't think he can be president with our vision of a new, modern, clean Lebanon where we have to fight corruption. And he's a symbol of corruption," says Nayla Mouawad, a Maronite and a leading member of Mr. Hariri's alliance.

Still, any renewed attempt to oust Lahoud is undermined by the president's newfound appeal to many Christians and the opposition's failure to secure a two-thirds parliamentary majority necessary to begin the complicated process of removing a president.

• With Lahoud continuing as president, Saad Hariri is not expected to become prime minister of the next government. Hariri, who holds the president partially responsible for the murder of his father, has said he would await the results of the elections before deciding whether to seek the premiership. Walid Jumblatt, his ally in the opposition alliance, has recommended that Hariri stay out of office.

"If I am allowed to make an advice, I counsel Sheikh Saad not to stand for the premiership because this would be a risk as long as General Lahoud is president," Mr. Jumblatt said in a television interview.

That means that Mr. Mikati will probably be reappointed prime minister. A businessman with commercial ties to Syria, he is seen, nonetheless, as a credible prime minister to helm the country through the tricky months ahead.

"I am not a premiership aspirant and I do not plan to return to the Grand Serail [the prime minister's office]. But if the majority in parliament wants me, I will not shy away," Mikati said.

• The 128-seat parliament will consist of three blocs, the largest being Hariri's, which consists mainly of Sunnis with some Druze and lawmakers from six different Christian sects. In second place, with 35 seats, is an alliance between erstwhile Shiite rivals, Hizbullah and the Amal Movement, with 14 and 15 seats respectively. The remaining six seats of the Hizbullah-Amal bloc are held by pro-Syrian secular political parties and an independent.

In third place, with 21 seats, is General Aoun's unlikely alliance of Christian supporters and longstanding allies of Damascus. It includes mainly Maronites with a handful of other Christian sects, two Shiites, and a Sunni. The Aoun bloc effectively represents the Christian community and is expected to adopt an opposition role in coordination with Lahoud.

The composition of the new parliamentary blocs reflects a resurgent sectarianism in Lebanon that took hold midway during the elections, overshadowing the opposition's core electoral goal of ridding the country of Syria's remaining influence.

"It is worrying for the future," says Paul Salem, a political analyst. "There's not going to be a conflict but it's a bad leap backward. The way the politicians handled the election ... ended up aggravating in a major way confessional [sectarian] tensions, particularly between Christians and Sunnis."

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