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Lebanon's Pro-Western Coalition Wins Surprise Victory in Elections

Saad Hariri, leader of Lebanon's pro-Western coalition, at a polling station in Beirut
(RFE/RL) -- Lebanon's pro-Western coalition has claimed a surprise victory in parliamentary elections on June 7 against the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hizballah and its allies.

The coalition is headed by Saad Hariri -- son of slain former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. It expects to widen its majority in the 128-seat parliament to at least 70 seats, compared to about 58 seats for the rival Hizballah and its Shi'ite and Christian partners.

But already, analysts and newspaper commentators are questioning whether the rival factions will be able to form a unity government in order to ensure stability.

In fact, Hizballah on June 8 warned Hariri's coalition that the election results signal the possibility of further political turbulence ahead. Hizballah lawmaker Muhammad Raad predicted that political crisis will continue in the country unless "the majority changes its attitude."

He also warned that Hizballah will not surrender its weapons arsenal -- an issue that has been at the center of a national debate in Lebanon.

Israel waged a devastating war against Hizballah in 2006 that left much of southern Lebanon in ruins and killed more that 1,200 people.

The militant Hizballah -- supported by both Iran and Syria, and blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist group -- has refused to disarm since 2006, despite a post-war UN resolution that calls for all militias to turn in their weapons. Hizballah argues that its arsenal is needed to defend Lebanon against Israel.

Long-Term Difficulties

Hussain Abdul Hussain, the former managing editor of Beirut's "Daily Star" newspaper, is now a visiting fellow at Chatham House in London. He told RFE/RL that the election results were encouraging. But he says Hizballah's position on the vote bodes ill for the future of Lebanon and the wider region.

"The first reaction we see is the reaction of Hizballah, who said that the election results show that the crisis is still the same -- and that the only way out of this crisis is for the renewed majority to come to terms with Hizballah and to change its behavior,” Hussain said. “It seems they won't admit defeat. There seems to be no democratic way around the problem of Hizballah's arms in the short term. And there is no way to convince Hizballah to play according to democratic rules in the long term."

Experts say they could not have imagined a more legitimate victory for the Hariri-led alliance that the June 7 vote.

Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Middle East Carnegie Center, says Lebanon has entered a new phase with the election. But he says the real question is about the kind of challenges that Lebanon's future government will face.

Hussain tells RFE/RL that he expects the biggest challenge to be the issue of what Hizballah does with its weapons.

"Now what happens on the ground is different because Hizballah has the arms. It has a private army and it can call the shots. This is what is worrisome for Lebanese democracy at large,” Hussain said. “The good news is Lebanon will not be re-aligned or taking the side of Syria and Iran -- at least the official side of Lebanon won't be doing that in the near future."

As for the impact of the elections on regional relations, Hussain says Iran and Syria are not going to be happy about the election results.

"The region was apparently anticipating a victory by Hizballah,” Hussain said. “We heard Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad saying that the Iranian axis was waiting for a victory by their allies in Lebanon so that Lebanon will formally join this axis. This did not happen -- to the surprise, I would say, of everyone in the region and around the world.”

He continued: “So Hizballah now cannot step into the shadows and call the shots from behind the scene like I think it had planned to do. Hizballah now will have to keep on relying on its bullying force in order to keep whatever it does not like in the Lebanese government in line. This [election result] will not go well with [Hizballah's] regional allies -- especially in Damascus and Tehran."

‘Victory For Democracy’

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah -- a supporter of Hizballah -- told journalists in Gaza City on June 8 that he is not unhappy with the election outcome.

"What happened is the victory of democracy, the victory of freedom of expression, political pluralism, and peaceful handover of authority,” Haniyah said. “We wish for Lebanon, the Lebanese nation, and all the winners of this election to provide Lebanon with protection as an Arab power and a strong region in the face of the Israeli occupation."

But in Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that Lebanon's next government ultimately will be held responsible for any violence Hizballah militants commit against Israel.

"It is quite natural that the government of Lebanon, be its components what they may, will be held responsible for any military or otherwise hostile activity that will emanate from its territory,” Palmor said. “For Israel, the primordial interest is that no violence be carried out against Israel or against Israelis from Lebanese territory."

Israel also has already demanded that the next Lebanese government stop the smuggling of weapons to Hizballah via Syria and by sea. It says Beirut's next government must act to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 -- which ended the 33-day war between Israel and Hizbollah in 2006. Full compliance with that resolution would entail the disarming of Hizballah.

Israeli lawmakers have said they are optimistic about the election outcome because it reverses a trend in which radical Islamists have gained strength in the Middle East in recent years.

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