By Dion Nissenbaum
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
BEIRUT — Lebanon's pro-Western political parties turned their focus Monday toward crafting a stable coalition government hours after voters, prodded by the Obama administration to embrace moderation, soundly rebuffed efforts by Iran-backed Hezbollah politicians to secure more political power in Beirut.
While Monday's results gave the ruling coalition a significant political boost, the fractious alliance must now decide whether to marginalize Hezbollah or bring the powerful Shiite Muslim party into a new unity government.
Official results released Monday showed that the ruling March 14 alliance of Sunni Muslim, Druze and Maronite Christian lawmakers won 71 of the parliament's 128 seats. Hezbollah and its Christian allies, who had been widely expected to boost their numbers and possibly claim a parliamentary majority, ended up with 57.
"I think it's good for Lebanon in that it stabilized things and doesn't rock the boat with relations with Arab countries, relations with Europe and relations with the United States," said Paul Salem, the Beirut-based director of the Carnegie Center for International Peace's Middle East Program.
The election results also provided a political boost for President Barack Obama, who has embarked on a new effort to foster stability in the Middle East.
"It is our sincere hope that the next government will continue along the path towards building a sovereign, independent and stable Lebanon," Obama said Monday in a statement. "Government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion."
Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both made high-profile visits to Beirut in the waning days of the campaign — and both intimated that a Hezbollah victory could propel Lebanon into political isolation.
However, Obama's call last week in Cairo for a "new beginning" for U.S.-Middle East relations also helped tilt the balance toward America's allies, Salem said.
"I think Obama's emergence, not just his speech, but his overall view that there is a middle way, that it wasn't just between (George W.) Bush and (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, that helped as well," Salem said, referring to the former U.S. and current Iranian presidents.
In some ways, Salem said, Hezbollah's electoral setback may have been a blessing in disguise for the Shiite group, which is listed as a terrorist group by the U.S.
"It's not clear that Hezbollah really wanted to win this thing," he said. "Had they won, they would have immediately faced a number of crises."
Had Hezbollah emerged to lead a parliamentary majority, Lebanon could have faced a loss of Western financial aid and increasing threats from Israeli leaders to the south who haven't forgotten their 2006 war with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's forces.
Israeli President Shimon Peres praised Lebanon for its free election, but warned the nation's leaders that they had to confront Hezbollah.
"The results of the elections in Lebanon do not change the fact that the Hezbollah remains a country within a country, an army within an army, and that it prevents the economic recovery of Lebanon," Peres said.
Voters who rebuffed Hezbollah at the polls often cited the group's stunning military takeover of West Beirut on May 7, 2008. The temporary takeover set the stage for a compromise peace deal that gave Hezbollah and its allies veto power in the parliament.
However, it also stunned many in Lebanon who had been assured repeatedly that Hezbollah would never turn its weapons on fellow Arabs.
Last month, in the final weeks of Lebanon's fiercely contested parliamentary election, Nasrallah brought the issue back to the political forefront when he called May 7 "a glorious day for the resistance."
"The effects of May 7 continue to this day," said Beirut documentary filmmaker Haisam Shamas as he sat in a West Beirut cafe on Monday. "And if we don't have a unity government, there will be another May 7."
Leaders of the ruling coalition, led by Sunni Muslim lawmaker Saad Hariri, made it clear during the campaign that the agreement would come to an end when the new parliament takes power.
However, some, including Shamas, fear that cutting Hezbollah out of the political process will only force the Iran-backed group to take the battle back to the streets.
As March 14 alliance supporters celebrated their victory with hours of fireworks Monday night, Nasrallah appeared on Hezbollah's al-Manar television station with a message of political conciliation.
Nasrallah congratulated his political rivals and said he accepted the results. However, the Hezbollah leader made it clear that he would challenge any renewed attempts to force his militant wing to disarm.
He urged the winners to compromise.
"Let us build the republic based on truth, clarity and transparency, and not on fears, threats and lies," Nasrallah said.
As in the past, outside forces played a major role in the outcome of the race.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are both thought to have spent tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to back their rival political forces.
Political parties spent millions to fly Lebanese voters living abroad back to their country to vote on Sunday, and residents around the nation reported various attempts to buy their votes.
Despite some flaws, however, outside electoral observers declared the race free and fair.
(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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