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Lebanon: What the election meant

Reporter Kate Seelye

Kate Seelye interviews opposition supporters in Beirut.

Just two and a half months ago, I witnessed a heady celebration in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, the site of the many anti-Syrian protests that helped force Syrian troops to leave after a 29-year occupation. Lebanese diva Majida Rumi was singing about freedom and liberty and the crowd of thousands -- mainly young Lebanese who had joined the string of protests -- were going wild. Syrian forces were on their way out and the Lebanese were giddy with a sense of empowerment.

"The elections have been an emotional roller coaster, leaving many here, including myself, exhausted following a month of rallies, political mudslinging, allegations of vote-buying, and bizarre political alliances that made even the most cynical Lebanese cringe."

Almost anything felt possible in this new, soon-to-be sovereign Lebanon. In the FRONTLINE/World documentary, "The Earthquake," I called that moment the "Beirut Spring," knowing in my heart that enormous challenges still lay ahead.

After a month of voting on staggered Sundays, the Lebanese opposition -- an alliance of Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims -- has prevailed, winning 72 of the 128 seats in Parliament. It was a tough campaign and the outcome was unclear until the final day of voting when the opposition staged a major comeback. The head of this alliance, Saad Hariri -- the son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri -- is now poised to carry on his father's vision of a democratic Lebanon free of Syrian domination.

The elections have been an emotional roller coaster, leaving many here -- including myself -- exhausted following a month of rallies, political mudslinging, allegations of vote-buying, and bizarre political alliances that made even the most cynical Lebanese cringe. Still, at the end of this long circus, it's clear that Lebanon does enjoy a democracy -- albeit an imperfect one. Candidates from opposing camps vied for seats; the competition, although heated, never resorted to real violence; and in some districts, especially Mount Lebanon, where the race was fierce, polling stations were jammed with voters who felt their ballot made a difference.

The race mainly pitted Lebanon's anti-Syrian opposition led by Saad Hariri against another anti-Syrian candidate, former general Michel Aoun, who returned recently from exile in France. Aoun, a Maronite Christian, made an improbable alliance with some of Syria's closest political allies, after falling out with the opposition.

The young Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, was thrust into the limelight in the wake of his father's killing. A businessman, who had been running his father's Saudi-based construction company, Saudi Oger, Hariri was called upon to head a Sunni community bereft of its beloved leader. The shy, but engaging 35-year-old launched his campaign with the awkwardness of a political novice, but with a little coaching, transformed himself into a relatively charismatic public speaker.

I watched him one night early on in the campaign, as he rallied a room of a thousand or so supporters at his family's Beirut headquarters. He led a kind of call and chant with the ease of a practiced politician. At one point, he even stood on a table to address his supporters, triggering screams of enthusiasm from several young women, enthralled, most likely, by his good looks and family pedigree.

Hariri's electoral ticket in Beirut was assured a victory. Many opposing candidates bowed out of the race, intimidated by the Hariri campaign machine. With the race locked up in advance, voter turnout was low. Still, when the results came in on the night of Sunday, May 29, Hariri supporters beat drums and danced with joy. Saad Hariri's enthusiasm was more tempered. He told me that his victory was bittersweet. It was his father, he said, who should have been running in the election.

The second round of voting in south Lebanon was dominated by the country's two main Shia political parties -- the Islamist militant group Hezbollah and the more secular Amal movement. Southern Lebanon is heavily Shia and the two groups have ruled the south's political landscape for decades, leading the resistance to Israel's longtime occupation of south Lebanon, which ended five years ago.

The vote turned into a referendum against international demands that Hezbollah's militia be disarmed. The Islamic Resistance, as it is known, is popular among Lebanon's Shia, who make up the largest of Lebanon's 17 religious "confessions," accounting for more than 35 per cent of the population. American and European calls to disarm Hezbollah have not gone over well in the south; at rallies, young Hezbollah supporters heatedly told me that Hezbollah would never give up its arms until an Arab-Israeli peace treaty had been signed. Hezbollah's militia, they said, was Lebanon's best defense against potential future Israeli aggressions. Hezbollah and Amal won all 35 seats up for grabs and both parties remain close to Syria.

But it was the third round of voting in the so-called "Christian heartland" of Mount Lebanon that really shook this election up. There, Michel Aoun's slate won unexpected victories in Mount Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, grabbing 21 of the 58 seats. The result stunned the Hariri alliance and lead to the defeat of some well-respected Hariri allies.

Aoun was the surprise factor in this campaign -- a "tsunami," as his rival Walid Jumblatt calls him. The old general had fled Lebanon in 1990 after leading a failed "war of liberation" against the Syrian army presence. From exile in Paris, he waged a tireless campaign calling on the Syrians to leave Lebanon. He was a key backer of U.N. resolution 1559, which demanded a Syrian troop withdrawal. But upon returning from France, Aoun immediately clashed with opposition leaders Jumblatt and Hariri.

The main bone of contention was over the distribution of seats on electoral tickets. Aoun felt he and his candidates merited more seats than the opposition was willing to offer, so he broke with it. Not known for his tactfulness, Aoun further offended the opposition by claiming to be the only politician in Lebanon who had never collaborated with the Syrians. He noted that both Jumblatt and Rafiq Hariri had once happily cooperated with their Damascus neighbor.

Aoun's split with the anti-Syrian opposition rocked Lebanon's fragile unity, forged during the Cedar Revolution, and raised the specter of greater sectarianism. In need of allies to boost his electoral chances, Aoun formed an alliance with some of Lebanon's most pro-Syrian candidates, including former interior minister, Michel Murr. It was an improbable pairing, but Aoun justified his politically expedient alliance by claiming that his allies were no more pro-Syrian than Hariri or Jumblatt had once been.

Aoun supporters were an especially energized bunch during these elections. Sporting the distinctive orange t-shirts of Aoun's party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), his young election volunteers crowded polling stations urging voters to choose the Aoun list; pro-Aoun motorcades plied Lebanon's freeways and back roads, waving the FPM's bright orange flag and honking their distinctive ditty: "Beep, Beep, Beep, General....Beep, Beep, Beep, General!"

Aoun was among the few politicians running with a clear platform. He even published a 47-page pamphlet setting out his proposals for reform. His message was simple. He called for an end to Lebanon's rampant corruption as well as for a united Lebanon -- free of the sectarianism that has long divided the country's religious communities. He told a press conference that he wants a "new political order" in Lebanon. It was more than other politicians offered, and his messages struck a chord with many, not just Christians.

"The new generation has to change the voting habits here if we want to move away from sectarian conflicts and make a parliament that's pro-Lebanon and not pro-Druze, pro-Sunni and pro-Shia."

At a polling station in the town of Shoueifat, 21-year-old university student Zeina Saab shook her head with disbelief as she confided that she had voted for Aoun's ticket. She said her parents would be furious if they knew. A member of the Druze religious community, Saab said her family had long backed the ticket of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. But Saab said she was tired of the same old politicians. She wanted to see fresh blood in Parliament. Lebanese, she said, have to start voting for qualified candidates, not the candidates backed by their religious leaders. "The new generation has to change the voting habits here," she said, "if we want to move away from sectarian conflicts and if we want to make a parliament that's pro-Lebanon and not pro-Druze, pro-Sunni and pro-Shia."

Ironically, Jumblatt himself had told me in our FRONTLINE/World television interview that he too supports reforming Lebanon's political system to engage a young generation hungry for change. But some doubt Jumblatt's sincerity. Change might well entail the end of Jumblatt's political career after some 25 years as a member of parliament.

But while Aoun's fans regard him as a reformist, his critics accuse him of being a demagogue and a Christian extremist, whose main ambition is to become the future president of Lebanon. Many wonder how he'll work in Lebanon's new parliament where compromise and consensus-building will be crucial.

Lebanon's newly elected parliament faces enormous challenges. The country's national debt is spiraling out of control; corruption is rampant, and international pressure is growing to disarm Hezbollah. University of St. Joseph law professor Chibli Mallat says Parliament will be unable to tackle these issues or take on other serious reforms as long Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, remains in power. "He has lost the trust of the people," said Mallat, adding, "It would be have the most tragic symbol of the ancient regime being entrusted with reforming the old order."

But Lahoud seems little inclined to step down before his term expires in two years, despite widespread anger over the illegal extension of his term ordered by the Syrian regime last fall. It would require a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament to remove Lahoud, by changing the constitution.

With Lahoud still in power, and many of Syria's allies -- such as Hezbollah and Amal -- in Parliament, it looks like Damascus may still hold some sway over Lebanon. It will be difficult to clean up Lebanon's pro-Syrian intelligence forces with a pro-Syrian president, as well as pro-Syrian speaker of Parliament, most likely to be the head of Amal. There are also rumors that Syrian intelligence agents have returned to Lebanon since Syria's troops withdrew in April. Many Lebanese believe that Syrian agents continue to operate with impunity with their Lebanese counterparts. They point to the recent car bomb assassinations of two anti-Syrian activists. Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, was killed in early June, while this week, as the new parliament was being sworn in, George Hawi. the former head of the Communist party, died when his car exploded in West Beirut.

Both killings have cast a dark shadow over Lebanon. Kassir's death, in particular, was an enormous shock to many here. A journalist at the prestigious An-Nahar newspaper, Kassir was also very active in the independence movement this past spring. During a visit to the An-Nahar offices to interview editor, Gebran Tueni, I bumped into Kassir. I knew him from past encounters, but was surprised to see him gathered in a small conference room with people I knew to be actively involved in organizing the anti-Syrian protest movement. I hadn't realized that Kassir was very much at the heart of it.

Lebanon has taken enormous strides since the February 2005 killing of Rafiq Hariri, but with each step, it faces new and overwhelming obstacles. And that discourages many Lebanese. The heady days of March 14, when one million people gathered in Beirut's Martyrs' Square to demand a Syrian withdrawal, sometimes seem very far away. Friends of mine note that the Syrians might be gone, but Lebanon is still a mess. After the Hawi killing, a girlfriend admitted that she's not sure she even wants to remain in Lebanon. "Is this an environment to raise kids in?" she asked, rhetorically, and then added with a deep sigh, "It's going to be a long, hot summer."

Kate Seelye is a Middle East correspondent for American public radio and a regular contributor to FRONTLINE/World. Read Seelye's pre-election dispatches from the region and watch the broadcast story, "The Earthquake," now available streamed on this site.