EARLY Sunday morning a convoy of cars and small buses was lined up at the edge of the main road in Ouzai, a beach-side slum district of Beirut, heading south.
The leading car in the convoy flew the black flag of Hizbullah (Party of God), the Shiite Muslim fundamentalist movement financed and supported by Iran. Similar convoys were taking Shiites from many areas of Lebanon to their home towns and villages in the south of the country for the third and last round of parliamentary elections.
As the convoy moved out of Ouzai, worshippers went to church; for the third straight weekend the Maronite-Christian community observed a boycott of Lebanon's first vote in 20 years.
The Christians decided to protest the elections when the Syrian-backed government turned down their demands last month that voting be postponed until after 35,000 Syrian troops were withdrawn from the country.
The Christian abstention and the success of Hizbullah were two of the main features in the controversial elections - marred by widespread allegations of cheating - that have plunged Lebanon into a severe political crisis.
Christian leaders say the election results do not reflect the interests of the Maronites, who constitute one-third of the electorate.
"Today's [government] leaders are only the representatives of the forces of occupation," Gen. Michel Aoun, the exiled hard-line Christian leader, told the Beirut daily newspaper Al-Nahar. It was a sentiment expressed widely in private by ordinary Maronites.
Opponents of the elections pointed to another development in the last round of polling to support their view that the elections were without value. One-quarter of the electorate in the south lives in the buffer zone imposed by Israel close to the border. These people were prevented from reaching polling stations outside the area, the critics say, because Israel's client Lebanese militia in the zone kept exit gates closed.
No matter how much the Maronites defend their boycott of the elections, the move has left the Christians in a political wilderness. "The Syrians have in effect said to the Christians that if they choose to snub the democratic process, then they must accept that they will have no influence in the political process," a Western diplomat in Beirut says.
Al-Nahar has reported cracks in Christian ranks, with some leaders starting to question whether the boycott was wise.
Hizbullah, on the other hand, had clearly decided to use the polls to exert its influence on mainstream politics. The movement campaigned hard and skillfully, taking advantage of a close relationship that it had developed with underprivileged sections of the Shiite community.
"We will fight poverty as ruthlessly as we will resist the Israeli occupation," was the slogan proclaimed by banners in southern Lebanon. Hizbullah has been using money donated by Iran to provide basic welfare services for thousands of homeless Shiites.
THE pro-Iranian group also displayed what a Western diplomat describes as "surprisingly sophisticated political pragmatism" in forming a tactical alliance in the campaign in southern Lebanon with its rival in the Shiite community, Amal - the mainstream movement led by Nabih Berri.
Mr. Berri headed the "Liberation List," a list of candidates favored by the two groups to fill 22 of the 23 seats assigned to southern Lebanon. The idea was to form a strong anti-Israeli lobby for the south and to block the election of moderate Shiites. All the candidates on the "Liberation List" were successful, including two Hizbullah members.
The result gives Hizbullah eight seats in parliament, which, when combined with six won by hard-line Sunni Muslims, gives Islamic fundamentalists the biggest bloc in the new Assembly. Most of the other deputies lean toward Syria.
In the aftermath of the elections, Beirut must reestablish its credibility. Two Maronite ministers resigned during polling, two members of the Cabinet lost their seats, and Prime Minister Rashid Solh narrowly escaped defeat.
"This was in no sense a vote of confidence in the Syrian-backed government," says a Sunni Muslim university professor, who declined to be named. "In fact it was quite the opposite."
The biggest problem for President Elias Hrawi is how to woo the Christians back into the political process. Commentators in Beirut speculate that Prime Minister Solh may expand the Cabinet to form a new government of national unity. The government yesterday also rescheduled the elections for five Maronite Catholic seats in parliament for Oct. 11. It remained unclear if candidates would register for that balloting.
The coming days will determine whether the Maronites' boycott has left them politically isolated, a Western diplomat in Beirut says. If so, he adds, "there must be a serious danger of a permanent Christian-Muslim rift opening up in Lebanon."