Lebanon Opposition Vows Change after Winning First Post Syrian Polls

BEIRUT (AFP)–Lebanon’s main opposition alliance led by Saad Hariri swept all 28 seats up for grabs in Sunday’s decisive final round of the four-stage parliamentary elections–Interior Minister Hassan Sabeh confirmed–ushering in the first legislature not controlled by pro-Damascus factions since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

Hariri–whose five-time premier father Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a February bomb blast that paved the way for the end of Syria’s long domination–said it was too early to talk of following him into the prime ministership.

But he vowed to end what he said was widespread skepticism in Lebanon about the possibilities of genuine reform.

"We have got to show people that we are not only here to talk," he told a nationally televised news conference in front of a huge portrait of his slain billionaire father.

Hariri’s alliance now controls 72 of the 128 seats in parliament against 35 for the pro-Syrian alliance led by Shiite factions Amal and Hezbollah–and 21 for an unlikely alliance between Christian opposition firebrand Michel Aoun.

The new balance of power will allow Hariri to take the premiership if he chooses–but he said he first wanted to try to win over his defeated rivals.

"We are trying to get a more broad alliance in discussion with other parties," he said. "Once we achieve that–we will discuss about the prime ministership."

Aoun already ruled out any possibility of joining a Hariri-led government–accusing his rival of "vote-buying" and pledging to go into opposition but there was no immediate word from the Shiite alliance.

The eight-seat majority won by Hariri’s bloc falls short of the two-thirds majority required to unseat President Emile Lahoud but Hariri said in any case he wanted to move cautiously.

"This is an issue that is quite sensitive in Lebanon," he said. "We will move with the sensitivity that it needs."

The United States–which took the lead with former colonial power France in sponsoring a UN Security Council resolution last September demanding the withdrawal of all foreign troops–hailed the four-stage election as an "important milestone in Lebanon’s transformation."

"We have full confidence that the parliament and the forthcoming cabinet in Lebanon will be committed to the type of genuine political–institutional–economic reforms that the Lebanese people so desire and so deserve," US ambassador Jeffrey Feltman told reporters.

But a European Union observer mission noted a string of complaints about the conduct of the vote–including a "substantial number of allegations of vote-buying."

It also called for an urgent overhaul of the Lebanon’s sectarian political system–which reserves half the seats in parliament for the Christian minority–saying it breached its international obligations and the principle of equality of votes.

The clean sweep in the final round in north Lebanon was a major coup for Hariri–following an unexpected rout by Aoun and his allies in the previous phase.

Hariri will now need to use all the business acumen he honed during nine years of running the family empire to put right an embattled economy–burdened by a 35.5 billion dollars debt.

The political turmoil sparked by his father’s murder in a massive explosion on the Beirut seafront has severely dented confidence. The central bank warned last week that it expected gross domestic product to shrink this year with inflation outstripping growth by two percentage points.

Hariri will also need to face continuing US-led international pressure for the disarmament of Hezbollah’s military wing–which still patrols the south to the exclusion of the Lebanese army five year’s after Israeli troops withdrew.

During the campaign–Hariri–who made some electoral deals with Hezbollah–spoke out strongly in favor of the "resistance"–in contrast to Aoun who argued its militiamen’should be disarmed in accordance with last September’s UN resolution.

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