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Hariri to win Beirut”s first Syria-free polls | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Supporters of Saad Hariri flash the V-sign outside a polling station (AP)

Supporters of Saad Hariri flash the V-sign outside a polling station (AP)

Supporters of Saad Hariri flash the V-sign outside a polling station (AP)

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The son of slain Rafik al-Hariri headed for victory in Beirut polls on Sunday, but voters denied him the high turnout he sought in Lebanon”s first parliamentary election in three decades with no Syrian troops in the country.

Even before the vote began, nine of the city”s 19 seats had gone uncontested to nominees of Saad al-Hariri, a businessman thrust into politics by the Feb. 14 killing of his father, who as prime minister led Lebanon”s postwar reconstruction drive.

U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen congratulated Lebanon for conducting the first round of polling successfully.

&#34These elections … represent a significant step for the Lebanese people in their quest for recovering their full political independence and sovereignty,&#34 he said in a statement.

Only a handful of pro-Syrian leftists and Muslim militants were competing with Hariri”s Future bloc in mainly Sunni Muslim Beirut, where around 400,000 people were eligible to vote.

Hariri”s supporters began a victory dance at one of his offices as polls closed at 6 p.m. (1500 GMT). Vote counting began and unofficial results were expected later in the evening.

The 35-year-old billionaire had called for a high turnout, but an Interior Ministry official put it at only about 28 percent. Voting was especially thin in Christian areas.

The capital had a 34 percent turnout in 2000, when Hariri”s father, then cooperating with Syria, swept the board.

Hariri is set to repeat that landslide in mainly Sunni Muslim Beirut, the first region to vote for the 128-member parliament in elections phased over four successive Sundays.

&#34The people will have their say today and demonstrate their loyalty to Rafik al-Hariri,&#34 he said. &#34Those who are against us today do not want a unified country or a unified Beirut.&#34

Followers of Christian leader Michel Aoun, left off Hariri”s anti-Syrian ticket, had urged people to shun the polls, handing out orange stickers that said: &#34Boycott the appointments.&#34

The Armenian Tashnag party, disgruntled because the four seats reserved for Beirut”s big Armenian community had gone unopposed to Hariri”s candidates, also demanded a boycott.

The polls follow two political earthquakes in Lebanon — Hariri”s killing in a bomb blast many Lebanese blamed on Damascus, and the end of Syria”s 29-year troop presence.

Between those landmark events, flag-waving Christians and Muslims, including many civil war foes, flooded the streets in protests against Syria, which denied any hand in Hariri”s death.

For some, Lebanon”s first elections in three decades without Syrian troops offer a new start. &#34I voted because I believe in change,&#34 Basil Eid, 27, told Reuters. &#34We want Lebanon free of any subordination. We have to rule ourselves by ourselves.&#34

For others, the euphoria of the anti-Syrian protests has given way to dismay at politicians who have reverted to electoral horse-trading and alliances that curtail voter choice.

&#34Why should I vote when the result is already decided?&#34 said Abdul-Rahman Itani, in his 40s.

Armed police and soldiers guarded polling stations in Beirut. Official results will be declared on Monday.

For the first time, foreign observers were monitoring the polls, with a team of more than 100 led by the European Union.

&#34It”s a festival of democracy,&#34 the chief of the EU mission, Jose Ignacio Salafranca, told reporters at one polling station.

Critics of Syria, which tightened its grip on Lebanon after the 1975-90 civil war, say its intelligence chiefs manipulated previous elections in favor of its political partners.

Many Lebanese are unhappy with the current electoral law, designed to favor Syria”s allies in the 2000 election. Many old faces will return to the assembly, but Damascus will no longer be the sole arbiter of Lebanese politics.

The solidarity of the anti-Syrian alliance that blossomed after Hariri”s death has eroded in the run-up to the election.

Hariri”s alliance with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and some Christian foes of Syria is intact, but Aoun, a fierce opponent of Syria just back from exile, was left out in the cold.

Yet the Hariri-Jumblatt front has also made deals with the main pro-Syrian Shi”ite alliance. Hariri”s Beirut ticket includes a Hizbollah candidate. The joint Amal-Hizbollah list in the south embraces Bahiya al-Hariri, the slain leader”s sister.

The election results are broadly predictable in Beirut and the south, but tighter contests are expected in the north and center of the country, especially among Christian rivals.

supporters of Saad al-Hariri celebrate in the streets of Beirut (REUTERS)

supporters of Saad al-Hariri celebrate in the streets of Beirut (REUTERS)

A Lebanese woman holding her child casts her vote at a polling station in Beirut (REUTERS)

A Lebanese woman holding her child casts her vote at a polling station in Beirut (REUTERS)