BEIRUT, Lebanon – A Lebanese Christian general who once fought the Syrian army and returned from exile just weeks ago appeared headed toward a surprising victory Monday in the third round of parliamentary elections.
It was unclear what a win for Michel Aoun (search) would mean for efforts by Lebanon's (search) anti-Syrian opposition to wrest control of the parliament from allies of Damascus. Although he has not made his position clear, Aoun appears to have thwarted the opposition's quest for a majority.
Fifty-eight of 128 seats in parliament were at stake Sunday in the elections in central and eastern regions of the country. Aoun secured at least 14, according to preliminary results, campaign estimates and exit polls. In some areas, his allies were already celebrating.
The opposition had 19 seats going into the voting and needed another 46 to win a majority. The anti-Syrian bloc still has a chance to do that when the final round of elections is held in the north next Sunday. Twenty-eight seats are to be decided then.
The apparent strong showing for Aoun, a 69-year-old former military commander, was a combination of his alliances with pro-Syrians and his own credibility as an outsider who challenged the established politicians.
Aoun returned to Lebanon last month following the withdrawal of Syria's (search) army in April after 29 years of control. He had spent 14 years in exile, much of it in France.
Aoun campaigned on a platform to fight the corruption he blames for Lebanon's economic ills, including a national debt of over $30 billion. He started off as part of the anti-Syrian bloc, then switched to a pro-Syrian slate, saying his feud with Damascus was over now that Syrian troops have left Lebanon.
Walid Jumblatt, the Druse oppposition leader who has publicly sparred with Aoun, accused the former general of being brought in by Damascus to undermine the opposition.
"Michel Aoun is a small (Syrian) tool," Jumblatt said Sunday in a telephone interview with Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. "True he succeeded, I concede that."
In the second round of elections on June 6, the pro-Syrian Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah swept the 23 seats at stake in southern Lebanon.
In comments late Sunday, Aoun said he was willing to talk with other factions in the new parliament and, if there were no agreement, he and his pro-Syrian allies would be in opposition to the government in place.
The anti-Syrian bloc, led by Jumblatt and Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former Premier Rafik Hariri, had hoped to wrest control of the legislature in the first election free of Syrian domination, but the campaign has led to some surprising alliances.
Aoun challenged tickets backed by Jumblatt, who himself formed alliances with pro-Syrian factions including the Shiite Muslim Amal and Hezbollah groups.
Sunday's election took place in mountain towns overlooking the Mediterranean that were the scene of vicious combat during the 1975-90 civil war, and in farming communities in the eastern Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border.
Unofficial turnout tallied by media and various campaigns was estimated at a relatively high 54 percent in Mount Lebanon and 49 percent in Bekaa.
About 1.2 million men and women over 21 were eligible to vote in Sunday's round.