BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Lebanese voted on Sunday to choose successors to two assassinated anti-Syrian lawmakers in the latest showdown between the Western-backed government and its opponents.
The by-election to fill the Maronite Christian seat left empty after Pierre Gemayel was killed in November has shaped up as a test of strength between the two camps weeks before parliament is due to elect a Maronite as Lebanon’s president.
A pro-government Sunni Muslim candidate is expected to stroll to victory in another by-election in a Beirut district.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora hailed the peaceful by-elections as a civilised response to political assassination. “Democracy in Lebanon will defeat terrorism,” he said in a statement.
A 9-month-old political struggle has caused the worst civil strife since the 1975-1990 war, and some feared a fresh outbreak of violence during voting. But no major incidents were reported at polling stations in the Christian heartland, where turnout was reported to be at around a healthy 45 percent, officials said.
Electoral officials from both camps expected a close contest. Vote counting began shortly after polls closed at 1500 GMT with results expected later in the night.
Thousands of Lebanese troops and police tightened security in the area, where flags and posters of the rival parties adorned balconies, electricity poles and cars.
Former president Amin Gemayel, Pierre’s father and leader of the Phalange Party, and a candidate from the Free Patriotic Movement of opposition leader Michel Aoun are contesting the Maronite seat in the Metn district northeast of Beirut.
Both leaders had savaged each other in the runup to the vote and both camps exchanged charges of forgery and vote-buying on election day.
Gemayel is a key player in the anti-Syrian majority coalition, which is supported by the United States, France and Saudi Arabia. Aoun is the main Christian leader in the opposition, which includes Hezbollah, an ally of Syria and Iran.
An independent monitoring body, Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, said the polls were generally democratic and calm but reported some violations. By contrast, the by-election for a Sunni seat in a Beirut district to chose a successor to Walid Eido, who was assassinated in a car bomb attack in June, was a low-key affair.
A candidate from the main Sunni Future group of Saad al-Hariri looked set to secure the seat after the opposition launched only a half-hearted challenge due to the wide support Hariri enjoyed in that district. Turnout was around 20 percent. “This battle is to complete (Lebanon’s) sovereignty, confirm Cedar Revolution and accomplish the goals of the independence uprising,” Gemayel said, in reference to street protests that forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence back in 2005. “Our main goal is participation (in government). We extend our arm to all the Lebanese to rebuild Lebanon and to salvage it from this big crisis,” Camille Khoury, Gemayel’s opponent, said.
Gemayel and his allies accuse Syria of orchestrating the killing of Pierre Gemayel, Eido and other anti-Syrian figures.
Damascus denies involvement in the killings.
Maronites once dominated Lebanese politics and, while the presidency is still reserved for the sect, the post was stripped of some of its powers by a deal which ended the civil war.
The by-election took place also against the backdrop of an 11-week-old battle between Lebanese troops and al Qaeda-inspired militants in north Lebanon that has killed at least 259 people, including 133 soldiers.