Lebanon's Christians deal blow to anti-Syrian coalition

Michel Aoun emerged from Lebanon's third round of polls Sunday as a hard-line Christian political force.

Michel Aoun has gained a surprise victory in the key third stage of Lebanon's elections, delivering a blow to the anti-Syrian opposition's chances of forming a majority in the next parliament.

Mr. Aoun won a clean sweep of seats in the Christian heartland north of Beirut in Sunday's polls, knocking aside moderate Christian candidates and confirming the fiery-tempered former general as the undisputed representative of a community that has felt marginalized since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

"He is an authentic leader with a large following, and he counterbalances in confessional terms the leaders of other [non-Christian] communities in Lebanon," says Paul Salem, a political analyst.

The result also reflected Christian resentment that an alliance of Sunnis, Shiites, and Druze all but swept earlier electoral stages.

"They have thrown a curve ball at this convenient cushy arrangement," says Michael Young, opinion editor of Lebanon's English-language Daily Star newspaper.

Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze community and an opposition figurehead, said of Aoun's victory "extremism has vanquished moderation."

Since he returned to Lebanon in early May from 14 years in exile, Aoun has proved a divisive figure. He alienated his erstwhile colleagues in the opposition by claiming that he and other exiles were responsible for Syria withdrawing its troops from Lebanon in April. Aoun also sided with Emile Lahoud, Lebanon's ardently pro-Syrian president, who the opposition believes was involved in the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri in February.

During his exile in France, Aoun was one of Syria's harshest critics. But with Syria gone, Aoun has focused on tackling corruption and the traditional political elites - policies that resonate with many Lebanese. The As Safir newspaper said Aoun has now established a greater hold over Lebanon's Christian community than any political leader since the civil war.

But Aoun's success at the polls has upset an opposition goal of unseating Mr. Lahoud after the elections and appears to have weakened chances of Saad Hariri's being appointed prime minister of the next government. Mr. Hariri is son and political heir to Rafik Hariri.

"True, he succeeded, I concede that. They brought him back to use him as an instrument of tension among the Christians and to set the grounds for a new civil war," Mr. Jumblatt said on Lebanese television.

At stake during Sunday's round of voting in the Mount Lebanon district and in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon were 58 seats in the 128-seat parliament. According to results announced by Interior Minister Hassan al-Sabei, Aoun and his allies clinched a total of 21 of those seats. The round produced the first genuine electoral battle since the polls began on May 29.

The Mount Lebanon district, home to Christians and Druze, was fiercely contested and gave rise to an array of tangled alliances and divisions, complex even by Lebanon's normally Byzantine standards.

The first two rounds yielded predictable results with the opposition sweeping Beirut and an alliance of the militant Hizbullah organization and its Shiite rival, the Amal Movement, securing all available seats in south Lebanon.

Although the opposition is expected to do well in the final round of voting on June 19 in the north, Aoun is determined to present a challenge. He traveled to the northern city of Tripoli Monday to effect a reconciliation between Omar Karami, a former prime minister, and Suleiman Frangieh, a Christian leader, so they can team up to confront the opposition alliance.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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