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Lebanese electoral coalition vows to use majority to bring unity

BEIRUT, Lebanon _The anti-Syrian coalition that swept Lebanon's parliamentary elections vowed Monday to fight corruption, boost the economy and work toward national unity in the tiny Mediterranean country long plagued by sectarian tension.

Saad Hariri, the winning alliance's Sunni Muslim leader and the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, said he'd make Lebanon stronger by building on the election alliances that crossed sectarian and ideological lines to usher his bloc into power. Fireworks colored the nighttime sky in Beirut and Hariri supporters danced in the street as the final results were announced on television, confirming the landslide victory that was predicted when polls closed Sunday night.

Hariri and his allies will dominate the 128-member legislature with 72 seats, according to results from the Interior Ministry. Hariri's most formidable competitor was the alliance anchored by the Christian former army commander Michel Aoun, which picked up 21 spots. The militant Islamic group Hezbollah's union with the more moderate Shiite Muslim Amal party won the Shiite vote for a total of 35 seats.

The first elections free of Syrian dominance in three decades resulted in a fiercely contested campaign season that highlighted the lingering rivalries from Lebanon's devastating 17-year civil war. The election-season show of unity is expected to falter once the new legislature gets down to business on two key issues: the ouster of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud and the disarming of Hezbollah.

Hariri, said to be the favored contender for prime minister, sidestepped questions on those topics Monday, saying they were matters for the legislators to decide. The 35-year-old leader preferred to focus on the legacy of his father, whose death in a car bombing sparked massive demonstrations this spring that were the catalyst for Syria's withdrawal after a 29-year military dominance of its smaller, weaker neighbor.

"This election was about my father," said Hariri, speaking from his family's opulent mansion against a backdrop of giant posters of his father. "I am here merely to continue what he has started. ... Unfortunately, we paid a very hefty price to get our freedom."

A political novice with little but his famous last name to persuade voters, Hariri triumphed by cultivating alliances with more seasoned factions such as the influential Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the Lebanese Forces, the old Christian militia. Aoun, a longtime critic of Syrian interference who'd just returned from a 15-year exile imposed by Damascus, surprised onlookers by joining forces with Lebanese politicians whose ties to the Syrian regime ran deep.

Hariri, the young heir to his family's vast fortune, came under attack by opponents who accused his well-funded campaign of pouring money into the coffers of political hopefuls to get a broad cross-section of the vote. His detractors said they'd work to put a cap on campaign funding and to begin investigations into allegations of vote-buying.

"This is one of the major issues that brought these kinds of results and influenced the Lebanese citizens' will," said Ibrahim Kanaan, an Aoun ally who won a seat in the legislature. "If we leave the ceiling for funding as it is, without any limits, it's against democracy and against freedom."

The elections were staggered by region over four consecutive weekends. Hariri's slate swept the first round in Beirut, the Hezbollah-Amal alliance took the mostly Shiite south, Aoun's candidates dominated the Christian heartland and Hariri's alliance won again in the mountainous north in the final round Sunday.


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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050620 Lebanon result

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LEBANON-ELECTION

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