Lebanon's Leader Reaches Out to Opponents
By SAM F. GHATTAS,
Associated Press Writer Mon Jun 20, 6:28 PM ET BEIRUT, Lebanon -
The son of Lebanon's slain former prime minister, whose anti-Syrian slate swept to victory in the final round of Lebanon's parliamentary elections, reached out Monday to his defeated opponents with promises that he would not "close the door on anyone." The anti-Syrian opposition led by Saad Hariri captured control of Lebanon's parliament Monday in the fourth and final round of the country's elections, breaking Syria's long domination of the country. Interior Minister Hassan Sabei declared anti-Syrian opposition candidates had won all 28 seats in north Lebanon in Sunday's polling. "The north has decided the character of the new parliament and given the absolute majority to the opposition," Hariri said. Anticipating victory, men, women and children waved flags and danced in the streets of Tripoli, the provincial capital of the north, earlier Monday. In Beirut, the national capital, opposition supporters drove through the city, cheering and honking in celebration. Asked whether he would seek the premiership, 35-year-old Hariri said he would consult his allies. Hariri, the son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, also said he would negotiate with other parliamentary blocs to broaden his alliance. Extended a hand to his defeated opponents, Hariri said: "We have to maintain dialogue with everybody. We will not close the door on anyone." The election was marred by vote-buying and other shortcomings. The head of the European Union observers, Jose Ignacio Salafranca, said his team of about 100 personnel had "directly witnessed a few attempts at vote-buying" in the three previous rounds of voting. He also said the electoral system needs "a very serious reform to be closer to the democratic standards." However, Sabei told reporters: "The Ministry of Interior has accomplished free, honest and neutral elections." On tour in Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice commended the way the Lebanese had debated during the election, telling Al-Arabiya satellite TV: "I think it shows that they can overcome the deep differences that have been in their society." State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said there remained misgivings about a "lingering Syrian intelligence presence" in Lebanon, although the polls were free of foreign interference for the first time in 30 years. President Emile Lahoud called on the new parliament Monday to reform the electoral law to "put an end to vote-buying and give an equal opportunity to all candidates." The opposition's victory capped four months of political upheaval since the Feb. 14 assassination of Rafik Hariri. The killing provoked mass demonstrations against Syria which, backed by U.N. and U.S. pressure, forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon by late April, ending 29 years of military and political dominance. The opposition blamed Syria and pro-Syrian elements in the Lebanese security services for blowing up Hariri's motorcade, killing him and 20 others on a Beirut street. Syria denied involvement. The all-too rare Christian-Muslim solidarity that emerged after Hariri's assassination disintegrated during the campaign. The final round was particularly marred by sectarian appeals as both sides sought to mobilize their supporters. The new parliament will face the challenge of healing Lebanon's long standing divisions, as well as the new sectarian tensions. "What happened is a hurricane that aims at destroying Lebanese unity," said Mikhail Daher, a former opposition legislator who was defeated by the main opposition alliance. Daher, a Christian, blamed his loss in the mainly Muslim Akkar region on vote-buying and sectarian incitement by the Future Movement of Hariri, a Sunni Muslim. Michel Aoun, the Christian leader who broke with the anti-Syrian alliance to form his own list, said he would sit in opposition. "There's a dispute over values," he said of his rivals. The parliament also will elect a new speaker and nominate a new prime minister. The outgoing speaker and premier are pro-Syrians. The new government will have to tackle Lebanon's heavy debt, cooperate with a U.N. investigation into the Hariri assassination, and work out how to approach the deeply divisive U.N. call for Lebanon to disarm its militias — a reference to the Hezbollah group, which enjoys strong electoral support and wide respect among Lebanese for its campaign against Israel.