BEIRUT – Lebanon's Western-backed coalition defeated Hezbollah and its allies, according to official results Monday that dealt a stunning setback to the Iranian-backed militants and set the stage for renewed political deadlock in the volatile nation.
The winners celebrated in the streets, setting off fireworks and driving around in motorcades honking hours before the official results from Sunday's parliamentary vote were even announced.
The election was the first major political test in the Middle East since President Obama called last week for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims." In his speech from Cairo, he challenged the Islamic world to confront violent extremism and urged Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states to find common ground to establish peace.
Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, has been one of the staunchest opponents of American policy in the Middle East. A win for the Shiite group would have boosted the influence of its backers Iran and Syria and risked pushing one of the region's most unsettled countries into international isolation and possibly more conflict with Israel.
But Obama's outreach did not appear to have resonated with the electorate as much as a last-minute appeal from head of the influential Maronite Catholic Church. Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir warned voters on the eve of the election of what he called an attempt to change Lebanon's character and its Arab identity, a clear reference to Hezbollah and its Persian backer, Iran.
"I present this victory to Lebanon," Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said on television after stations projected his coalition was winning. "It is an exceptional day for democracy in Lebanon," he added.
"We are on the threshold of a new stage," he told reporters. "We should try and understand the changes that are coming to our country and the region and to be prepared," he said.
The interior minister announced the final results for the 128 parliamentary seats from all 26 districts at a news conference. The tally showed the winning coalition with 68 seats versus 57 for the Hezbollah-led alliance. Three seats went to independents. The allocation was largely unchanged from the outgoing legislature, ensuring that the same disputes will continue to roil the political scene.
Hezbollah has not officially conceded yet. Its TV station said leader Hassan Nasrallah will speak late Monday.
Israel, which warned ahead of the elections that a Hezbollah victory could further destabilize the Middle East, appeared relieved by the results.
Lawmaker Tzahi Hanegbi, who heads the parliamentary committee in charge of foreign affairs and defense, said the initial indications from Lebanon were positive.
"We can say that after many years in which the leading trend in the Middle East was the clear strengthening of the radical camp, the camp that puts Israel and the U.S. in its crosshairs, then yesterday might have been a reversal of the trend," he told Army Radio.
Hezbollah was boosted by a 2006 war it fought against Israel and along with its allies, it provoked a political crisis in 2007-2008 with demands for veto power over government decisions.
They staged protests and installed an encampment in downtown Beirut that paralyzed the commercial heart of the Lebanese capital. The showdown culminated in street battles that brought the country to the edge of another civil war.
An agreement to end the violent confrontation gave Hezbollah veto power over major government decisions.
This time around, the pro-Western coalition vowed not to give Hezbollah and its allies a blocking minority in the new government if they won, maintaining that the arrangement paralyzed decision-making. Hezbollah and its allies have countered that sharing power ensured peace.
A failure by the parties to agree on how to share power could set the stage for another round of confrontation that could again inflame sectarian tensions.
The leader of the largest bloc in the pro-Western coalition, Saad Hariri, said he extends his hand to the losing side to work together.
President Michel Suleiman set the political tone for the postelection period when he expressed hope for a national unity government, a prospect both sides have already raised.
Turnout nationwide was about 52.3 percent up from 45.8 percent in 2005.