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Lebanon: Analyst Says Elections Will Have International Significance

After a month of balloting in Lebanon's four-phase general elections, the alliance that opposed the presence of Syrian troops in the country appears set to control a majority in the new parliament. Unofficial final results from yesterday's voting show the alliance, led by Saad Hariri -- son of slain former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri -- taking an overall total of 72 seats in the 128-member assembly. The results are seen to have regional and international implications -- including the potential to influence events in neighboring Syria.

Prague, 20 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Beirut residents marked Lebanon's first election in decades without Syrian interference in spontaneous celebrations yesterday evening after Saad Hariri declared victory for his electoral alliance.

Unofficial final results show Hariri's alliance won enough seats yesterday to control an overall majority in Lebanon's new parliament. That makes Hariri the frontrunner to be Lebanon's next prime minister.

The 35-year-old Sunni Muslim businessman has risen to the top of the country's political scene in record speed since the assassination of his father, ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in mid-February.

In the wake of the attack, Hariri created an electoral alliance by rallying around a platform of protecting the country from outside interference. In particular, Hariri harnessed the momentum of mass protests in Lebanon for an end to the presence of Syrian troops.

But the electoral alliance is an unlikely list of politicians who had been rivals during the country's civil war era. Nadim Shehadi, the acting head of the Middle East Program at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, says parliamentary alliances could differ sharply from the electoral lists.

Shehadi also directs the Center for Lebanese Studies at Oxford University. He tells RFE/RL that the impact of the Lebanese election goes far beyond local politics.

"This is one of the rare instances where a very local election acquires international importance. The outcome is relevant because Lebanon is now relevant in the region after having been relegated very much to the back burner, under Syrian control, for 15 years," Shehadi says.

Shehadi expects the future parliamentary alliances, more than the electoral alliances, will be based upon the critical issues facing the country.

"The final outcome is that the opposition to Syria -- or if you like, Hariri's list -- have won in Lebanon. They are the biggest winners in the end. And they are more in alliance with Saudi Arabia and in tune with the international community, or the Americans' agenda, in the region," Shehadi says.

Shehadi says the composition of the new parliament could change the role Lebanon has played in Mideast regional affairs during the past 15 years. Instead of being controlled by Syria, he says Lebanon has the opportunity to emerge as an independent player.

"What this means for the region and what is going to happen next in Lebanon is that all of the big issues -- some of which were frozen for the last 15 years -- are going to be determined in the next parliament. One of them is related to the region, and it is how they resume relations with Syria. The second is very important as well, and it is how do you disarm Hizballah or what do you do with Hizballah," Shehadi says.

And Shehadi says the changing dynamics of Syria-Lebanon relations has farther-reaching implications that could impact the agenda of U.S. President George W. Bush's administration.

"The whole regional agenda of the United States as declared by President Bush is influenced by what happens in Syria in the next few months. This whole Lebanon episode, which includes the way demonstrations managed to bring down the [pro-Syrian] government in Lebanon and force a pullout of the Syrian presence in Lebanon -- is bound to have an influence on internal Syrian politics. From the perspective of Washington, the result is positive," Shehadi says.

Still, while international pressure can help bring about the kind of changes that Washington wants to see from Damascus, Shehadi says too much pressure from the United States can have a negative impact upon Bush's agenda.

"Change in Syria is provoked by international pressure and international intervention. But at the same time, international intervention is, in a way, strengthening the regime because people in Syria watch what is happening in Iraq. And they don't want the same thing to happen in Syria," Shehadi says.

In the end, though, Shehadi concludes that it will not be possible for Lebanon's new parliament to "build walls" in its relations with Syria.