Syrian-Backed Opposition Claims Victory In Lebanon Poll


Agence France Presse — English
August 6, 2007 Monday 3:54 PM GMT

Lebanon’s Western-backed ruling majority was dealt a blow on Monday
in by-elections that split the country’s Christian camp in two and
boosted the Syrian-backed opposition ahead of a presidential poll.

Official results showed the candidate representing opposition leader
Michel Aoun winning by a slim margin of 418 votes over former president
Amin Gemayel, who was supported by the ruling Western-backed coalition.

Camille Khoury won 39,534 votes as against 39,116 for Gemayel.

Aoun and Gemayel both made separate calls for unity after the results
were announced but bickered over who has the mandate to represent
their community.

"These elections have shown that the solution to the Lebanese crisis
is found in respect for institutions. This is why I am calling for
reconciliation between Christians… so that presidential commitments
can be respected," Gemayel told a news conference.

"These elections were effectively a test. They have shown that General
Aoun’s support is in broad decline in Christian regions because of
the policies he has followed."

Aoun seemed to strike a conciliatory note in a subsequent news
conference of his own, but also claimed support from all Christian
confessions as well as Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

"Gemayel has spoken of a reconciliation under the aegis of the Maronite
(Christian) patriarch. We are in agreement on this and I extend my
hand," he said.

"But I dispute his analysis that I am not representative of
Christians. Maronites are not the only Christians," he added.

Aoun called the Metn region where Sunday’s vote took place a
"microcosm" of Lebanese society: "There are Maronites, Orthodox,
Armenians, Shiites and Sunnis. We won in a diverse constituency,
which means we are popular in all the communities."

The by-elections were to replace two murdered anti-Syrian MPs, the
latest in a spate of politically linked killings that have rocked
the country since the 2005 assassination of former prime minister
Rafiq Hariri.

The outcome of the vote was important as it showed which way
the country’s divided Christian community was leaning ahead of a
presidential election scheduled for next month.

Lebanon’s president is traditionally a Maronite Christian who is
chosen by parliament.

Gemayel was vying to replace his son Pierre, a Christian cabinet
member and lawmaker who was shot dead last November. In Beirut,
the vote was to replace Walid Eido, a Sunni Muslim lawmaker who was
killed in a car bomb in June.

Eido’s seat was easily won by pro-government candidate Mohamad
Amin Itani.

Several Lebanese newspapers on Monday said that although Aoun’s
Free Patriotic Movement emerged the winner in the weekend poll, the
party had nonetheless been weakened politically as it only clinched
a narrow victory.

"A difference of 418 votes: a fake victory," blared a headline in
the pro-government French daily L’Orient Le Jour.

The paper said that had it not been for the support of the Armenian
community in one district, where Gemayel alleged vote-rigging, Aoun’s
party would have been trampled in the polls.

But the opposition newspaper Al-Akhbar said that although Aoun won by
a slim margin, the results put to rest claims by the ruling majority
that he no longer represented the Christian community.

"Even though his victory was not overwhelming, Aoun came out the
winner," it said. "He has answered to those who pretend that he is
no longer the leader of the Christian community."

The movement of Aoun, a declared presidential candidate, garnered most
of the Christian vote in 2005 legislative polls, but his popularity
has waned since he forged a shock alliance last year with the Iran-
and Syria-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Parliament’s challenge now is to elect a new president to succeed
pro-Syrian incumbent Emile Lahoud by a November 25 deadline.

While the majority controls enough seats to elect a president, it
needs the opposition to take part for the two-thirds quorum required
for parliament to convene.