A former army general who returned to Lebanon last month after 15 years in exile appeared headed for a sweeping victory in the third round of legislative elections Sunday as anti-Syrian candidates braced for significant losses.
Preliminary results from voting in mountain regions and coastal areas around Beirut and in the central Bekaa Valley indicated that Michel Aoun and most if not all of his allies would emerge as winners in voting for nearly half the 128-seat national legislature. Final results were not expected until Monday.
A victory for Aoun's alliance would make it more difficult for the opposition coalition to form a majority in the legislature and move the country away from Syrian influence. The elections end next Sunday, when northern Lebanon votes.
The opposition had gained momentum after former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in February, an act that many people blamed on Syria. Domestic and international pressure forced Syrian troops to exit Lebanon this spring after a 29-year presence, but Syria still maintains considerable influence.
Aoun, 70, a Maronite Christian, fled Lebanon in 1990 after waging war against Syria. He returned from exile in France at the urging of the opposition. He later broke ranks and joined pro-Syrian groups, saying his fight with Syria ended with the troop withdrawal.
"I believe it is a victory because all political forces sided together against us alone," said Aoun, who has vowed to fight corruption, Reuters reported. "The opposition has no program, it has nothing."
Walid Jumblatt, a Druze leader and senior opposition figure, accused Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud of facilitating Aoun's return. "The country has gone back 22 years, and Syria is returning through the back door," Jumblatt said.
Voters arrived at polling centers in droves Sunday morning. Aoun supporters, many wearing orange T-shirts and bandanas, seemed to dominate the scene in Baabda and small adjacent townships along the Beirut-Damascus highway. Some of the shirts and signs carried the slogan "Keep Reforms in Front of You, and Leave Corruption Behind."
Clutching an orange rose, Mona Abinader, 70, sat in the shade outside a school in Baabda after voting for Aoun.
"I voted for his principles, the freedom of his words that you hear and believe," she said. "We have tried everyone else. Let us give him a chance and the opportunity now to see whether he is truthful or not."
Vivian Qusaim and her husband, Samir, emerged with their grandson after voting for different sides.
"We want a country that is free, so we can lead an organized, disciplined life again," Vivian Qusaim said, noting that she had voted for Aoun.
Samir Qusaim, a banker, disagreed. He said that Aoun had pretended to stand for one thing when he returned to Lebanon but now "seemed to be running interference against his own position."
In the Jumblatt stronghold of Aley, Amira Abi Rafeh and Thamer Abusaa'd said they had traveled from Kuwait to vote. "This election gave the freedom to all the people to be part of the democratic game. We are all Lebanese voting and working for Lebanon," he said. "Everyone is entitled to his free opinion."
Asma Andraos, an event planner who was working for Aoun's opponents, said she was not entirely opposed to Aoun's presence in the elections.
"I'm not unhappy about the turbulence that Aoun has caused, though. I want someone to stir things up a bit," Andraos said.
Her mother, Nawal Meouchi, agreed: "Holding people accountable is the first step to good governance."
As a blazing sun set into a sea of blue and molten silver, a group of teenagers, some wearing orange T-shirts and others not, milled outside the Byblos Middle School as the voting drew to a close. Darine and Rodine Saliba, fraternal twins 16 years old and too young to vote, said they simply wanted to show their support for the political process.
"We want to encourage independence, and stress that change is necessary. Our differences are only political. All we want is for the homeland to come out better. We cannot vote yet, but we are the future," Rodine Saliba said.