Lebanese vote in key election to replace assassinated lawmakers

Lebanese vote in key election to replace assassinated lawmakers
ZEINA KARAM, AP Worldstream
Published: Aug 05, 2007

Tens of thousands of Lebanese voted Sunday to replace two assassinated
lawmakers in a tense election that has become a major showdown between
the U.S.-backed government and its opponents.

The election’s results could determine the political future of this
deeply divided country, weeks ahead of a scheduled vote by parliament
to elect a new president.

Sunday’s vote closed at 6 p.m. (1500GMT) and was largely peaceful. It
took place amid tight security in two electoral districts, one in
Beirut and the other in Lebanon’s Metn region, a Christian stronghold
where the community is deeply divided.

The vote in Metn pitted Amin Gemayel, running on behalf of the
government coalition, against Kamil Khoury, who is supported by
Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, a former army commander and
interim prime minister allied with the Hezbollah-led opposition.

The Lebanese constitution provides that the country’s president must be
a Christian. Parliament should vote in September to replace current
President Emile Lahoud, due to step down no later than Nov. 23.

The elections in the Christian heartland was deemed a key popularity
test for Gemayel, the head of one of Lebanon’s most powerful Christian
families, and Aoun, who has already announced he would run for
president.

A local TV station called the Metn election "the mother of all
battles." Aoun’s party dominated the district in the 2005 legislative
elections.

Voting took place in a "calm and democratic atmosphere" and there was a
large turnout, said a statement from the Interior Ministry. Official
results will be announced late Sunday or early Monday, whenever vote
counting is over, the statement said.

Both sides declared they had won a few hours after the polls closed.

"We have been informed of our victory," Aoun said through his OTV
station. He accused authorities, however, of seeking to cancel one of
the ballot boxes east of Beirut and asked his supporters to head there.
"We hope that everything goes quietly tonight," he also told reporters.

Gemayel refused to concede defeat.

"Congratulations for your victory," he told a crowd of supporters
outside his house, to the backdrop of fireworks. The candidate, who was
president of Lebanon for much of the 1980s, said voters on Sunday had
given him "overwhelming support."

Gemayel also claimed there was fraud and contested the results in one
voting station in the Bourj Hammoud district with heavily ethnic
Armenian voters, calling for a re-vote in that area.

Both sides were seen celebrating in convoys on the streets in Beirut
and Metn region. Gemayel called for calm on the streets. "We don’t want
anyone to drag us into a confrontation that we don’t need," he said.

Voters were replacing Gemayel’s son, legislator and cabinet minister
Pierre Gemayel, who was shot dead in November, and lawmaker Walid Eido,
a Sunni Muslim who was killed in a Beirut car bomb in June. Both were
allies of the U.S.-backed Lebanese government and vocal opponents of
neighboring Syria, which controlled Lebanon for 29 years until it was
forced out in 2005.

In Beirut, the vote for Eido’s seat appeared to have been easily won by
Mohammed al-Amin Itani, a candidate of parliament majority leader Saad
Hariri’s Future Movement, particularly since the Hezbollah-led
opposition did not officially sponsor a candidate.

At the entrance of Gemayel’s hometown of Bikfaya, pictures of the
candidate and his slain son were displayed on balconies, cars and
electricity poles.

"Vote for freedom and independence by voting for Gemayel in Metn and
Itani in Beirut," read a banner. Gemayel supporters also distributed
white roses to voters before they cast their ballots in memory of the
late minister.

Gemayel and his wife, Joyce, began the day by visiting their son’s
grave before heading to the polling station. As he later entered a
school to vote, supporters of his Phalange Party chanted "Pierre lives
on!"

"We visited Pierre to … promise him that his blood will not be in
vain," Gemayel told reporters.

While pro-government politicians accuse the opposition of being agents
for Iran and Syria, Hezbollah leaders and Aoun accuse the ruling
majority of subservience to the United States.

Aoun has said the Metn elections are "to liberate the country from
political feudalism, sectarian intolerance and political bribery," a
reference to the Gemayel family’s role in Lebanese politics since the
1930s.

The rivalry between Aoun and Gemayel could further divide the Christian
community and is generally seen as a battle of wills between the ruling
coalition and the opposition, weeks before parliament is to elect a new
president.

The elections could also escalate the country’s deepening political
crisis because Prime Minister Fuad Saniora’s Western-backed government
called them without the required approval of President Emile Lahoud,
who has blocked attempts to replace the lawmakers. Lahoud considers
Saniora’s government to be illegitimate.

Lahoud is allied with the Hezbollah-led, pro-Syrian opposition, as is
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who has said he will not recognize the
results of the contests.

Gemayel and the government have accused Damascus of being behind the
assassination of his son and a number of other anti-Syrian politicians
and public figures over the last two years, part of what they deem is
Syria’s plan to end the majority’s rule through attrition. Syria has
denied the allegations.

With Eido’s death, Saniora’s margin in parliament has been whittled
down to only four seats.

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