Polling stations in Lebanon have closed with initial results showing former general Michel Aoun winning fierce electoral battles against rival anti-Syrian opposition groups in key districts.
At stake in the third round of parliamentary elections are 35 seats representing the central Mount Lebanon district and another 23 for the eastern Bekaa Valley.
Preliminary results indicate a sweeping victory for electoral tickets backed by Aoun in Mount Lebanon's mainly Christian Kesrwan-Byblos and Upper Metn districts.
Aoun, a former general who spent 14 years in exile in France following a failed "war of liberation" against Syrian troops in 1989, returned to Lebanon on 7 May, shortly after Syrian forces withdrew from the country.
Counts conducted in 278 of 336 polling stations in Kesrwan-Byblos showed that Aoun maintained a substantial lead over opponent candidates, winning at least 55,000 votes.
Opposition alliance candidate Mansour al-Bon, was trailing with 27,000 votes by the latest count.
Aoun's list comprises prominent pro-Syrian politicians including Druze leader Talal Erslan in the Baabda-Aley district, former minister Elias Skaff in the Bekaa's Zahle district and former interior minister Suleiman Franjieh, who will be running in the last round of elections in the north next week.
Competition between anti-Syria
groups was very fierce
A coalition of Christian groups, including the Christian Lebanese Forces, headed by jailed Christian leader Samir Geagea, and Christian Qornet Shehwan Gathering, embraced by Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, ran against Aoun’s ticket in the Kesrwan-Byblos district.
Other members of the coalition included the Phalange Reform Movement, headed by former president Amin Gemayel and the Future Movement, headed by Saad al-Hariri, son of slain former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
War of words
In the Upper Metn, the list backed by Aoun and pro-Syrian former interior minister Michel Murr also won, with only one seat going to an opponent candidate, MP Pierre Gemayel of the Phalange Reform Movement.
Gemayel described the results as "a strike hitting all the achievements that came out of 14 March," in reference to the massive anti-Syrian demonstration of nearly a million protesters marking exactly a month after the assassination of al-Hariri.
At the demonstration, Christian and Muslim opposition groups had vowed to remain united for the sake of Lebanon.
Leading Christian and Muslim opposition figures have accused Aoun of fracturing the opposition by forging alliances with pro-Syrian politicians.
But Aoun responded by saying that the opposition groups were threatened by his return and were trying to undermine him.
Jumblatt makes gains
Preliminary results in the Baabda-Aley district indicated that most candidates on the list backed by anti-Syrian Druze leader Walid Jumblatt have maintained a slim lead over opponent candidates, who are backed by Aoun and Jumblatt's traditional rival Druze leader Talal Erslan.
Sitrida Geagea (C) hopes to turn
votes into husband Samir's release
The list backed by Jumblatt, who won unopposed in the Chouf district, includes candidates from the Christian Lebanese Forces, al-Hariri's Future Movement and the Shia resistance group Hizb Allah.
"We are proud of all the alliances that we have forged," Lebanese Forces candidate for the Maronite seat in the Chouf district George Adwan said shortly after news that his party's candidates in the Upper Metn and Kesrwan-Byblos lost.
"We want to build Lebanon with all the other groups, Christians and Muslims, and we are taking an important step in opening up to others in Lebanon," he added.
Earlier in the day, Sitrida Geagea, the wife of the jailed Christian leader, urged supporters of the Lebanese Forces to turn out in high numbers at the polls, saying: "Every vote will be essential to release Samir Geagea from prison."
The Lebanese Forces is hoping to garner support in the new parliament to petition for the release of Geagea, who was convicted of assassinating the late prime minister Rasheed Karameh in 1987, from incarceration.
Unlike the previous two rounds of elections in Beirut and South Lebanon, during which the majority of voters picked entire lists based on religious loyalties, many voters in Mount Lebanon said they had chosen candidates from different tickets.
Some voters did not hide their disappointment over the alliances forged by Aoun and leading pro-Syrian figures, however.
Nevertheless, such alliances did not stop Aoun's supporters from voting for candidates of his Free Patriotic Movement, though some of them did not give their vote to pro-Syrian candidates running on the same list.
Jihan Milki, 30, told Aljazeera.net at a polling station in the town of Baabdaat in Mount Lebanon's Upper Metn district that she voted for the Aoun-backed list but crossed out the name of pro-Syrian former interior minister Michel Murr.
Aoun has been criticised for
fracturing the opposition
"I trust Aoun. I believe such alliances are temporary and are strictly for electoral purposes," Milki said.
Milki complained about the divisions among Christians, saying she voted for Aoun's candidates because she wanted the Free Patriotic Movement to gain as many seats as possible in the next Parliament to enable the former army commander to lead the Christians.
"Each of the Sunni, Shia, and Druze communities has a leader to refer to. But we Christians don't," she said.
"Today, they (Christians) will have a political leader," Aoun told reporters earlier in the day.
But some Christian voters said Aoun could not lead Lebanese Christians and blame him for recent divisions within the community.
"Aoun came back and messed up the entire opposition," said Badran Sharabati, 60, who said he voted for the list backed by outgoing MP Nassib Lahoud and other opposition figures in the Upper Metn.
But others took a much more hostile view of Aoun’s arrival on the political scene.
Jumblatt, who acknowledged Aoun as the Mount Lebanon winner, described the election results as a triumph of extremism over moderation.