Large turnout for lebanses vote

Many voters returned to their hometowns in Mount Lebanon, the country’s most populous province, and to the Bekaa Valley to cast their ballots in the third of four rounds of staggered parliamentary elections, the first free of the dominance of Syrian forces in nearly three decades.

Anti-Syrian forces need a strong showing in Sunday’s vote — at least 45 seats for a majority — to win a firm grasp on the 128-member Parliament and wean it of Damascus’ control. But the campaign has led to some surprising alliances and some races were too close to call.

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Lines formed outside polling stations in Mount Lebanon, a mountain region surrounding Beirut and stretching north and south of the city.

Halfway through the voting, turnout topped 50 percent in some areas, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said.

Michel Aoun, who recently broke with other opponents of Damascus and forged alliances with pro-Syrian politicians to form an anti-corruption ticket, was among the first to vote. He arrived under heavy guard at a polling station Haret Hreik, a Shiite Muslim southern suburb of Beirut that is the stronghold of the pro-Syrian militant group Hezbollah.

About 200 supporters cheered and applauded for the Christian leader, who returned home in May after 14 years’ exile in France.

Aoun, who was making his first trip to his hometown in more than 20 years, said he hoped his Free Patriotic Movement would debut in Parliament with at least 12 seats. “In the end, we all bow before the people’s will,” he told reporters.

The former general was the main challenger of the anti-Syrian opposition in Mount Lebanon and his success could hurt the opposition’s drive to gain a majority in the legislature and, depending on the number of seats he gains, could make him a key player in the effort to end Syrian control.

Druse opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, who has claimed that pro-Syrians brought Aoun out of exile to divide the opposition, pledged not to allow the former general “to steal our victory.”
“We are laying the foundations for a moderate, independent Lebanon,” Jumblatt said of his alliance with right-wing Christians, Hezbollah and Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former Premier Rafik Hariri. Jumblatt, too, has forged alliances with pro-Syrians like Hezbollah and the Shiite Amal group.

About 1.2 million men and women over 21 are eligible to vote Sunday. Some 100 candidates are competing in Mount Lebanon for 35 seats, allocated to different sects according to Lebanon’s power-sharing political system. In the eastern Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border, 119 people were competing for 23 seats. Official results were not expected before Monday.

Two seats that were uncontested in Mount Lebanon went to Jumblatt and ally Marwan Hamadeh, both lawmakers in the outgoing parliament.

In the first two rounds of voting, in Beirut and the south, seats were split almost evenly between opponents of Syria and supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah. The north votes in the last phase of elections next Sunday.

Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud voted in his Christian mountain hometown of Baabdat. He vowed to fight opposition attempts to force his resignation.

“No one can isolate me,” he declared. “I’m staying to the last moment I have in my tenure.”
Several hundred Druse lined up to vote in mountain towns, many men wearing traditional black baggy pants and white caps and women in black flowing robes and white head scarves.

Troops stood guard as supporters of Jumblatt and those of his Druse rival Talal Arsalan waved flags.

“God willing, this day will pass peacefully,” said Munira Salman Shaya in Dadghan. In her late 50s, Shaya said she voted for the Jumblatt-backed ticket “because this is what the leader asked us to do.”
Minor scuffles were reported in the regions Sunday, but the voting was largely peaceful. The government sent army and police reinforcements to Mount Lebanon after election-related violence last week.

In the Bekaa Valley, Hezbollah was expected to dominate the northern Baalbek-Hermel district. Elsewhere, candidates from the opposition, pro-Syrians, independents and traditional families fought for seats.

Syria withdrew its military forces from Lebanon in late April under international pressure and mass protests. But the United States has accused Damascus of not fully withdrawing its intelligence operatives and perhaps even organizing political assassinations. Syria has denied the allegations.

U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen met with Syrian President Bashar Assad for two hours in Damascus but left the country without commenting on the outcome of the talks.

The Lebanese opposition blames Syria and its Lebanese allies for the murders of Hariri and the anti-Syrian journalist Samir Kassir. Both parties deny the allegations.