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Son of slain opposition leader apparent winner in Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon—The 35-year-old son of slain opposition leader and billionaire Rafik Hariri appeared to sweep an election Sunday in Beirut, the first round in Lebanon's freest nationwide election since the end of its civil war 15 years ago.

Lebanon's Interior Ministry reported that unofficial results showed 28 percent of roughly 400,000 eligible Beirut voters turned out in an election for a new parliament. Voter participation was expected to be higher over the next three Sundays, when the elections continue across this Mediterranean country. Tighter races were expected in the north and central part of the country, especially among Christian rivals.

Lebanese media reported Sunday night that with nearly half of the votes tallied, Hariri's son, Saad, and his slate of 18 candidates had won by a landslide in two of the city's three districts and were ahead in the third. Official results were expected Monday.

The election was the first since Syria withdrew its troops from the country in April, ending a 29-year presence in the country.

Rafik Hariri's assassination in a bomb blast was widely believed to have been linked to his Syrian enemies. Large demonstrations sprang up against Syria and its allies who ran Lebanon's government. Many groups pledged to unify to strengthen Lebanon's independence and sagging economy.

In recent months, however, the solidarity of the anti-Syrian alliance has crumbled. Candidates for each of the 18 sects entitled to seats in the government have returned to focusing on their own interests. Political alliances among Hariri's bloc, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, some Christian opponents of Syria and the pro-Syrian Shiite Muslim guerrilla group Hezbollah have become fragile.

The younger Hariri's opponents on Sunday blamed the poor showing on backroom deals by clan and religious leaders that left him running uncontested in nine of 19 races.

But candidates allied with Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, said few people were willing to run against them after the uprising forced Syrian forces to withdraw from Lebanon and brought down the pro-Syrian government. Only a handful of pro-Syrian leftists and Muslim militants competed with Hariri's Ma'ak (With You) ticket in the Beirut polls Sunday.

Under an election law, seats in the 128-member parliament are allotted equally between Christians and Muslims.

"Everyone on my list is willing to give their soul and blood for the good of the country like my father did," Hariri said in a radio broadcast Sunday morning.

"What Lebanese people have to do is vote, even if they do so with a white slip" with no names on it, added Nabil de Freij, a Hariri bloc incumbent, standing outside a polling station in the Christian-dominated Ashrafiya neighborhood. "To say `No, I don't want to go vote' is like saying I don't want to stay in this country."

Their pleas failed to resonate with many of Beirut's diverse residents, however, especially Christians.

Some Hariri opponents, including followers of Christian leader Michel Aoun, who returned from exile three weeks ago, pressed for a boycott. They said the election amounted to appointments.

"We are not getting our rights, so why should we vote," said Garo Asdvazadorian, 21, a hairdresser and activist with the Armenian Tashnag party. The Tashnag party was disgruntled because some seats reserved for Beirut's large Armenian community had gone unopposed to the younger Hariri's candidates.

Many voters who turned out on Sunday wore buttons and ribbons to reinforce their demand for change.

"We were expecting more, but we have to vote," said Randa Daouk, 23, a graphic design major at Lebanese American University. "It's the first time Lebanese are deciding their future, now that there is no Syria here anymore."

Some voters expressed disappointment at the number of uncontested races.

"This is the worst election because it isn't really an election," said shopkeeper Mosan al Sagir, 57. He said he voted for Hariri's opponents.

International observers monitored the election Sunday for the first time in Lebanon.

The voting continues next Sunday in Lebanon's Shiite-dominated south.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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