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Lebanese election a blow to Hezbollah

The Western-backed March 14 coalition won an unexpectedly large parliamentary majority – 71 of 128 seats – over the opposition, led by the Iranian-backed militant group.

By Correspondent / June 8, 2009

Supporters of Future Movement, loyal to Sunni Leader Saad al-Hariri,celebrate their win in the parliamentary elections in Beirut, Lebanon,on Sunday.

Hussam Shbaro/Reuters

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Beirut, Lebanon

Lebanon's Western-backed March 14 coalition has defeated a stiff challenge by the Hezbollah-led opposition in national elections to retain its parliamentary majority.

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The March 14 bloc's win will reassure its supporters in Washington and Saudi Arabia, while the opposition defeat is a blow for Iran and Syria, which support Hezbollah and were hoping to counter US influence in Lebanon.

But protracted negotiations over the composition of a new national unity government could spark a fresh political crisis between the two rival camps.

A key sticking point is what should be done with Hezbollah's weapons – a question that has been at the crux of the political schism in Lebanon since the devastating month-long war with Israel in 2006. "It depends how smart March 14 plays it," says Ousama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut. "The election result has ripped many cards from Hezbollah ... but if March 14 has learned anything, it would be a major mistake to go after Hezbollah's weapons head-on."

Initial statements by March 14 leaders have struck a magnanimous tone, congratulating the opposition for a hard-fought race and expressing a readiness for cooperation and compromise.

While waiting for final results Sunday night, Walid Jumblatt, a March 14 leader and chief of Lebanon's Druze community, said that the opposition could not be sidelined from a future government.

"In case of a March 14 victory, we must not isolate the others," he said. "Beware of the deadly mistake of isolation."

The results of the election began to trickle through late on Sunday evening when it emerged that the March 14 bloc was gaining the upper hand in some of the key constituencies north of Beirut, in the southern town of Sidon, and in the Bekaa Valley, which were widely seen as the decisive battlegrounds in what has been the closest-fought election in over three decades.

As the results streamed in during the early hours Monday, fireworks exploded in the night sky above Beirut while motorcades of jubilant March 14 supporters drove up and down streets honking their horns.

Results reverberate in Riyadh, Tehran

The final results delivered early afternoon Monday confirmed March 14 was the winner with 71 seats in the 128-seat parliament, which included two allied independent candidates, against the opposition's 57 seats.

The margin of victory was larger than predicted, with analysts suggesting that the arrival of some 100,000 expatriate Lebanese in the days before the election swayed the result.

"I think the expatriate voters tipped the balance. They were the external variable in the elections," says Mr. Safa.

The results will bring sighs of relief and gasps of dismay from governments in cities as far removed as Washington; Tehran, Iran; Jerusalem; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Although a tiny country, Lebanon plays a pivotal role in the broader regional struggle pitting Iran, Syria, and their allies Hezbollah and Hamas against the US and its Middle East friends, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who fear Tehran's growing influence in the Arab world.

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