Lebanon's Pro-Western Bloc Wins Election

Lebanon's pro-Western coalition was victorious in Sunday's national election. The faction grabbed the majority in Parliament, successfully fending off a serious challenge by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its allies.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host

And lets go next to Lebanon, where the votes have been counted after an election over the weekend. It looks like a Western-backed coalition is the winner. The election is being closely watched in the region and in Washington. One question was whether voters would give big gains to a coalition led by the Islamist group Hezbollah, which would, to say the least, complicate foreign policy for the United States. NPR's Deborah Amos is in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. She's been covering this election, and Deborah, how have people responded to the results?

DEBORAH AMOS: Steve, the celebration started before dawn here, and that means fireworks and lots of shouting. Election results are posted in each district almost as soon as the vote is over. Saad Hariri, the leader of the March 14th winning coalition, gave a televised victory speech even before the official results were in and his coalition will get to form the next government. The Hezbollah coalition did concede defeat but I have to say that Hezbollah candidates won all of their allotted seats. The big disappointment in that coalition is the guy who lost, and that's Michele Aoun, he is a Christian politician, leader of the Free Democratic Party. He was supposed to deliver a parliamentary majority for the Hezbollah coalition, but the boos(ph) came the other way around. It was Shiite voters who voted for Aoun. He lost votes in the Christian majority districts.

INSKEEP: Listening to you reminds me that there are several different religious factions in Lebanon. And you talked about a lot of seats. Was there only a limited number that Hezbollah could win in any case?

AMOS: Well, here's how it works: there's 128 seats in this parliament and it's split down the middle. Sixty-four go to Muslims; 64 go to Christians. So, to get a majority you have to have a coalition. And the idea in this Hezbollah coalition, was that Michel Aoun would deliver those extra votes, which is what he couldn't do.

INSKEEP: So, what does this mean for Hezbollah?

AMOS: Well, in terms of their power in the country, nothing really has changed. Hezbollah remains the most potent political force in the country. They have an armed militia; it's stronger than the army of the state. What the loss means is for Michel Aoun's party.

There's lot of speculation here, Steve, that Hezbollah was conflicted about winning a majority in parliament. They are comfortable with the status quo, which is what has happened, and Hezbollah supporters expected to be a resistance movement against Israel on Lebanon's border, and an organization that delivers social services - they run schools, they run hospitals - all quite effectively. Had they won, Hezbollah would have been the strongest member of that coalition but they would have had to find compromises with this Christian general over government politics, and that would have been a new role for Hezbollah. They are more comfortable as a resistance movement.

And Hezbollah was quite aware that a win for their coalition would have complicated Lebanon's economic future. The country is reeling under a huge foreign debt. They need financial help from the European Union and Saudi Arabia to keep it afloat. There was no sense that that money would keep coming in if they'd won.

INSKEEP: Okay. So, Hezbollah won all the seats they could win, but the coalition they were part of was not going to be taking the lead in Lebanon; they're not going to be running Lebanon. What does that mean Lebanon's neighbors, especially Israel, which fought a war against Hezbollah a few years ago?

AMOS: Israel has been very clear that a win for the Hezbollah coalition, they would see that as a hostile act. So, now it is that tension on that border is a little less. The Western-backed coalition will be forming the next government. It is very likely that Hezbollah will take part in this government but they will not be the majority member.

As for another neighbor, Syria, they have been very low key through this election. Their army was in Lebanon up until 2005, and they had enormous influence here. The Obama administration has made it clear that they're not looking to open relations with Syria until after the Lebanon elections.

Now that the Hezbollah coalition has lost, it actually uncomplicates that relationship. It makes it easier for Washington to begin to focus on how they want to proceed with Syria. George Mitchell, President Obama's negotiator, is in the region. There's speculation that he is going to make his first trip to Damascus. That would have only come after this election.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deborah Amos is in Beirut. Deborah, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

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