Hezbollah set to win Lebanon vote
Sunday, June 5, 2005 Posted: 3:50 PM EDT (1950 GMT)
HOULA, Lebanon (Reuters) -- Syria's staunchest allies Hezbollah and Amal headed for a clean sweep in south Lebanon's polls on Sunday in the first general election since Syrian troops quit their smaller neighbor.
Official results were not expected until Monday but the Amal-Hezbollah list, dubbed the "steamroller", claimed it had won all 23 seats up for grabs in the two southern constituencies by a landslide.
"I thank all my people in the great south for renewing their confidence in the list and for the victory of all its candidates," Amal leader and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri told a news conference in the south.
"The results have not changed from the past at all and the south came out to say its word for resistance, for liberation, for development," he had said after polls closed.
Many in the Shi'ite Muslim heartland see a vote for Hezbollah as a vote for the group to retain its arms as a defense against neighboring Israel, which occupied the south for 22 years until its 2000 pullout.
Hundreds of supporters waving green Amal flags celebrated outside Berri's villa as results began to trickle out. Others drove through streets of southern villages and towns flying yellow Hezbollah and Amal flags.
Hezbollah, which Washington labels a terrorist group, and the more moderate Amal are the dominant forces among the Shi'ites, Lebanon's largest sect.
Lebanon's first general elections since Syrian troops quit their smaller neighbor are being held region by region over four weekends until June 19.
In the south, the Amal-Hezbollah slate had won six seats by default before a single ballot was cast, due to a lack of challengers.
Voting got off to a slow start but picked up during the day and Interior Ministry sources said turnout among the 675,000 eligible voters was 45 percent by the close of polling at 6 p.m. (1500 GMT).
Damascus backed both Amal and Hezbollah during and after the 1975-1990 civil war, and Shi'ites largely stayed away from anti-Syrian street protests that swept Beirut after the February 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Those protests, which united Christians, Sunnis and Druze, forced Syria to bow to world pressure and end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon in April.
Big challenges ahead
The biggest challenges facing the new parliament will include a U.N. resolution demanding the disarming of Hezbollah and the fate of President Emile Lahoud, a close ally of Syria.
Lahoud rejected on Sunday renewed opposition demands that he resign over Hariri's death and the killing of a prominent anti-Syrian journalist last week.
Central and eastern Lebanon will vote next weekend in what promises to be the most heated round.
At least five people were wounded in pre-election violence east of Beirut on Sunday when a gunbattle erupted between supporters of rival Druze parties armed with assault rifles. It was not clear what provoked the clash in the resort of Sofar, but the army said it had detained 20 of the troublemakers.
The anti-Syrian opposition is expected to win in most parts of Lebanon, buoyed by public sympathy over Hariri's death and by his son Saad's landslide in the first round in Beirut last week.
But the key issue in the south is different.
Banners in many southern towns urged voters to choose the Amal-Hezbollah list as a rejection of international pressure to disarm the guerrilla group, whose attacks were seen as instrumental in driving Israeli forces from southern Lebanon.
"Your vote is a bullet in the enemy's chest," read a banner in the mainly Sunni city of Sidon.
"Voters are affirming with their votes that they will protect the resistance as the resistance protected the nation with its weapons and bullets," said Sheikh Nabil Qaouq, Hezbollah's top official in southern Lebanon.
Some Christian opposition politicians called for an election boycott, complaining the shape of the districts made it hard to challenge the Amal-Hezbollah "steamroller".
Turnout was low in Christian areas, where supporters of staunch anti-Syrian Michel Aoun handed out leaflets declaring that "democracy has been burned in parliament".
It was significantly higher among Shi'ites, as Hezbollah and Amal supporters clad in their yellow and green colors drove around blaring patriotic songs and canvassing votes.
"I am going to vote for Hezbollah because they liberated the south. We owe them our blood," said Zeinab Yasin in Houla.