Monday, August 6, 2007

Opposition Wins Lebanon By-Election

BEIRUT, Aug 6--Lebanon's Western-backed ruling majority was dealt a blow on Monday in by-elections that split the country's Christian camp in two and boosted the opposition ahead of a presidential poll.

Official results showed the candidate representing opposition leader Michel Aoun winning by a slim margin of 418 votes over former president Amin Gemayel, who was backed by the ruling Western-backed coalition.

Camille Khoury won 39,534 votes as against 39,116 for Gemayel.

The outcome of the vote was important as it showed which way the country's divided Christian community was leaning ahead of a presidential election scheduled for next month. Lebanon's president is traditionally a Maronite Christian who is chosen by parliament.

The by-elections on Sunday were to replace two murdered MPs, the latest in a spate of politically linked killings that have rocked the country since the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Gemayel was vying to replace his son Pierre, a Christian cabinet member and lawmaker who was shot dead last November. In Beirut, the vote was to replace Walid Eido, a Sunni Muslim lawmaker who was killed in a car bomb in June.

Eido's seat was easily won by pro-government candidate Mohamad Amin Itani.

Several Lebanese newspapers on Monday said that although Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement emerged the winner in the weekend poll, the party had nonetheless been weakened politically as it only clinched a narrow victory.

The movement of Aoun, a declared presidential candidate, garnered most of the Christian vote in 2005 legislative polls, but his popularity has waned since he forged a shock alliance last year with the Iran- and Syria-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

"A difference of 418 votes: a fake victory," blared a headline in the pro-government French daily L'Orient Le Jour.

The paper said that had it not been for the support of the Armenian community in one district, where Gemayel alleged vote-rigging, Aoun's party would have been trampled in the polls.

But the opposition newspaper Al-Akhbar said that although Aoun won by a slim margin, the results put to rest claims by the ruling majority that he no longer represented the Christian community.

"Even though his victory was not overwhelming, Aoun came out the winner," it said. "He has answered to those who pretend that he is no longer the leader of the Christian community."

Simon Abi Ramia, an adviser to Aoun, said that Sunday's vote proved that he still enjoyed widespread support especially when one considers that he had beaten "a historical figure from the Metn" region, a stronghold of Gemayel's Phalange Party.

"A victory is a victory whether it be by one or 20,000 votes," he said.

But Faysal Itani, of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre think tank, said Aoun had nonetheless been politically weakened in the by-elections.

"He's been saying for a couple of years now: 'how can you ignore me when I represent 70 percent of Lebanon's Christians?'" Itani told reporters. "This election shows that he does not."

Samir Frangieh, a deputy from the ruling majority, said the vote had dashed Aoun's presidential hopes.

"He is now out of competition," Frangieh said.

Parliament's challenge now is to elect a new president to succeed incumbent Emile Lahoud by a November 25 deadline.

While the majority controls enough seats to elect a president, it needs the opposition to take part for the two-thirds quorum required for parliament to convene.

The by-elections came amid heightened political and security tensions in the country as a deadly showdown in a northern refugee camp continued to rage after 11 weeks.