06 August 2007

Opposition Wins




BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Christian opposition candidate narrowly won a by-election to Lebanon's parliament on Sunday in a result that seemed set to further complicate a 9-month-old political crisis.

In the latest showdown between Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's Western-backed government and its opponents, tens of thousands of Lebanese voted in by-elections triggered by the assassinations of two anti-Syrian politicians.

Official results showed the opposition candidate won by only 418 votes from about 79,000 cast in the Maronite Christian seat in the Metn district. A pro-government candidate strolled to victory in a Sunni Muslim seat in a Beirut district.

The Metn result endorsed Maronite opposition leader Michel Aoun's earlier statement his candidate had beaten Amin Gemayel, a former president and a key member of the ruling coalition.

"They just can't beat me," said Aoun, who says he is a candidate for Lebanon's presidential elections only weeks away.

But Aoun's opponents said the strong showing by Gemayel had dented the opposition leader's claim to be the strongest Christian political leader. "It is a victory," said Gemayel ally Samir Geagea.

Gemayel is an important player in the anti-Syrian majority coalition, which is supported by the United States, France and Saudi Arabia. Aoun is the main Christian leader in the opposition, which includes Hezbollah, an ally of Syria and Iran.

Lebanese troops intervened to break up several clashes between supporters of both camps north of Beirut, in which fists and sticks were used. Two people suffered gunshot wounds.

CIVIL STRIFE

The political crisis has caused the worst civil strife since the 1975-1990 war, and some feared a new outbreak of violence during voting. The opposition, grouping Aoun with Hezbollah and other Syrian allies, is demanding veto power in government.

The race for the Maronite seat left empty after Gemayel's son Pierre, a cabinet minister and parliamentarian, was killed in November had shaped up as a test of strength so close to the presidential elections.

Anti-Syrian Druze leader Walid Jumblatt told the LBC TV station that regardless of the final result, Gemayel had already won by vastly improving the showing of the majority coalition in the Christian heartland compared to national polls in 2005.

Aoun's candidates easily won seats in Metn in 2005, bolstering his claim to being the strongest Christian leader and allowing him to stake a claim for the presidency.

Official results showed pro-government candidate Mohammad Amin Itani won 85 percent of the vote in the Sunni seat in Beirut vacated by the killing of parliamentarian Walid Eido in June. Turnout was low at 19 percent. The opposition did not run a serious candidate in the by-election.

Siniora hailed the largely peaceful by-elections as a civilized response to political assassination. "Democracy in Lebanon will defeat terrorism," he said in a statement.

Thousands of Lebanese troops and police tightened security in Metn, where flags and posters of the rival parties adorned balconies, electricity poles and cars.

Gemayel and his allies accuse Syria of orchestrating the killing of Pierre Gemayel, Eido and other anti-Syrian figures. Damascus denies involvement in the killings.

Maronites once dominated Lebanese politics and, while the presidency is still reserved for the sect, the post was stripped of some of its powers by a deal which ended the civil war.-(R)

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.