TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) – From Mediterranean coastal towns to villages up steep mountains, voters cast their ballots Sunday in the last round of elections that will decide whether the opposition can eliminate Syria”s long grip on Lebanese politics.
Candidates” supporters drove through cities and farming towns in the hours before polls opened at 7 a.m., honking horns and waving party flags to wake up the faithful. In the remote, poor mountain region of Akkar, cars pulled in carrying area residents who live in Beirut, returning to their hometowns to vote.
The port city of Tripoli, the capital of the north — inhabited mainly by Sunni Muslims — was a jungle of pictures of scores of candidates, hung on buildings, trees and electricity poles.
The election is Lebanon”s first ballot free of Syrian domination in almost three decades, after Syrian forces pulled out in April. With Damascus” direct hand gone, its allies and its opponents are battling it out for influence.
But it may be tough for the anti-Syrian opposition to seize the clear control it was hoping for. The main opposition alliance — led by the son of slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri — must win 21 of the 28 seats up for grabs Sunday to have a majority in the 128-member parliament.
It was thwarted in racking up the majority in previous rounds by former ally Michel Aoun — who is allied with both anti- and pro-Syrian figures and made a surprisingly strong showing in voting held in different parts of the country since May 29.
About 680,000 men and women over the age of 21 — Muslims making up a slight majority over Christians — were eligible to vote during the 11 hours the polls will remain open across northern Lebanon. Voting was thin in the morning, a hot summer day.
The leader of the opposition, Saad Hariri, a Sunni, is counting on the Muslim vote to add to his previous successes within the Sunni community in earlier voting. Clerics in mosques have been urging voters to back the ticket of Hariri”s Future Movement and their allies.
Hariri also can count on right-wing Christians of the Lebanese Forces group, who have their stronghold in the mountain town of Becharre, where Setrida Geagea, the wife of the forces” jailed leader, is running. Samir Geagea is serving life in prison for killing political foes and his wife is seeking to get him freed.
"This is not only the last stage," Saad Hariri told a mass rally in the north before the election. "For us and for you, it is the last chance to save and regain Lebanon and finally eliminate (Syrian) tutelage."
Coming into Sunday”s round, the opposition — made up of Saad Hariri, Druse leader Walid Jumblatt and right-wing Christians — had 44 seats in the legislature. Pro-Syrian Shiite Muslim groups Amal and Hezbollah, along with their allies, have clinched 35 seats. Aoun and his allies have 21 seats.
Aoun, a Maronite Catholic and a former military commander who fought and lost a 1989 war with Syrian forces before going into exile, is relying on voters with military background from Akkar, where many members of the army hail from. Although soldiers are not allowed to vote, their families and the retired can.
He is also allied to some of the region”s traditional leaders, including the Muslim family of former Premier Omar Karami and Christian Suleiman Franjieh, former interior minister and a staunch pro-Syrian whom the opposition wants to defeat.
Aoun returned in May after 14 years of exile in France, and his supporters hailed him as a natural leader of the anti-Syrian opposition. But feeling rejected by Hariri and others, Aoun went on his own.
The elections have been a messy conclusion to Lebanon”s dramatic upheaval since the Feb. 14 slaying of Rafik Hariri in a bomb blast in Beirut. The assassination, blamed by the opposition on Syria and its Lebanese allies, sparked unprecedented anti-Damascus protests that helped push Syria into withdrawing its military.
Many people had expected the opposition”s alliance to win big in the legislature and rid it of the last vestiges of Syrian control. But the political landscape was fractured as factions jockey for power.
Though Syria no longer chooses who runs — and who wins — in Lebanon”s elections as it did in the past, reports of its continued influence have become an issue in the last stage.
Opposition candidates have accused Syria and its allies in the Lebanese intelligence services of pressuring voters while the pro-Syrians complain of vote-buying by their opponents and of stirring up sectarian tensions to garner the large Muslim vote in the region