Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies celebrated their sweep of Sunday's elections in southern Lebanon, while in Damascus, officials of Syria's ruling party gathered Monday for a meeting where President Bashar Assad focused on economic and governance matters rather than broad change in the political system.
Politicians from Hezbollah, an armed Shiite Muslim movement that was allied in the election with the mainstream Amal party, sought to portray the election results as a rebuff to international calls for its disarmament. Official results showed candidates on the Shiite parties' list outpolling their nearest opponents by ratios of about 10 to one.
Turnout overall, at about 45 percent of registered voters, was slightly higher than in the last parliamentary vote, in 2000. But in some Christian areas, only about 10 to 12 percent of voters turned out. Of the 23 seats involved in Sunday's vote, all were won by candidates on the Hezbollah and Amal list. Six were uncontested.
Riad Asaad, a secular Shiite whose losing slate was called the "list of change," said he understood his allies' chances of winning were low, but that they were in effect campaigning for the next elections four years from now and wanted to sensitize Lebanese voters to the spirit of competition.
Lebanese analyst Sarkis Naoum said that despite Hezbollah's strong showing -- it might ultimately claim 14 seats in the 128-seat chamber -- the new parliament would have to come up with a formula for eventually disarming the militia. Its slogans calling for resistance against Israel -- whose troops left southern Lebanon in 2000 after more than two decades -- were somewhat dated, he said, and the group had to move to a new phase.
"One must give them the breathing space of an electoral victory so the opposition can sit down with them for a deal later. Isolating Hezbollah or running a major adverse campaign at this point would have been a very bad idea," he added.
Other commentators here noted Hezbollah's demand that Amal chief Nabih Berri return as House speaker, saying it indicated that pro-Syrian candidates, including some Christians, were still hopeful of maintaining a majority in the new parliament.
The next two rounds of voting, this Sunday and on June 19, will be more hotly contested than the first two, and will determine whether the anti-Syrian opposition achieves a majority. The opposition gained momentum this spring after the assassination of a former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, led to mass protests, international pressure and ultimately the end of Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon.
Syria's president, meanwhile, told delegates at the opening day of the ruling Baath Party's 10th congress that the country should focus on liberalizing its economy and dealing more effectively with corruption, news services reported from Damascus.
Assad also hinted at political change, saying the Baath Party "should open up toward other national powers." But he said that parties based on religious or ethnic identity would not be allowed and that the Baath Party would maintain its dominant role.
Assad cautioned the approximately 1,200 delegates at the three-day meeting, last held five years ago, that initiatives should be taken according to Syria's "national interest," not in response to external pressures.
While emphasizing the need "for more effective and decisive mechanisms to combat corruption," he lamented the state of Syrian institutions. "We have faced numerous difficulties because of the weakness of the administrative structure, the lack of qualified people, and because of the accumulation of these problems," he said.
From Beirut, columnist Ghassan Tueni noted in An Nahar newspaper that many in the Arab world were looking toward the party congress with "a little hope and plenty of skepticism." His front-page piece called on Syrians to "take the leap," as the Lebanese had this spring, showing unity in the face of authority.
Syrian dissidents writing in the Lebanese press Monday dismissed hopes that the congress would bring about radical change. Ammar Abdulhamid wrote in the Daily Star, Beirut's only English-language daily, "What will in fact take place is an attempt to reinvent Syria's authoritarian system."