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Lebanese elections results relieve Washington

Washington breathed a sigh of relief at the news that the ruling pro-Western alliance had pulled out a surprise victory in the Lebanese parliamentary elections Sunday. "Sanity prevailed," a senior administration official said Sunday night. "I congratulate the people of Lebanon for holding a peaceful election yesterday," President Barack Obama said in a statement Monday, ...

Washington breathed a sigh of relief at the news that the ruling pro-Western alliance had pulled out a surprise victory in the Lebanese parliamentary elections Sunday. "Sanity prevailed," a senior administration official said Sunday night.

"I congratulate the people of Lebanon for holding a peaceful election yesterday," President Barack Obama said in a statement Monday, pledging continued U.S. support to a "sovereign and independent Lebanon, committed to peace."

Official final vote tallies Monday indicated that the March 14 coalition led by wealthy Sunni parliamentarian Saad al-Hariri had won 71 parliamentary seats out of 128, a one-seat gain from 2005, to 57 seats for the pro-Syrian March 8 opposition alliance.

Washington breathed a sigh of relief at the news that the ruling pro-Western alliance had pulled out a surprise victory in the Lebanese parliamentary elections Sunday. "Sanity prevailed," a senior administration official said Sunday night.

"I congratulate the people of Lebanon for holding a peaceful election yesterday," President Barack Obama said in a statement Monday, pledging continued U.S. support to a "sovereign and independent Lebanon, committed to peace."

Official final vote tallies Monday indicated that the March 14 coalition led by wealthy Sunni parliamentarian Saad al-Hariri had won 71 parliamentary seats out of 128, a one-seat gain from 2005, to 57 seats for the pro-Syrian March 8 opposition alliance.

In advance of the polls, many analysts had predicted that March 8, which includes the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement led by a Christian former general, Michel Aoun, would pick up a couple seats. But election results Sunday showed that Aoun lost support more rapidly in key Christian swing districts.

"The primary takeaway here is that March 14 won because Aoun lost too much support, and he lost that support in large part because of his alliance with Hezbollah and rapprochement with Syria and Iran," said Ben Ryan, a Lebanon expert at the Aspen Institute. "Most Lebanese Christians just weren’t ready to follow him down that path. … A number of rhetorical missteps by Hezbollah in recent days also likely contributed."

"Independent Christians voted March 14 in places like Zahle," said a former senior George H.W. Bush administration official who asked to remain anonymous. "Plus Hezbollah may well have tarnished their campaign [in] May with [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah‘s threatening speech."

"Christians changed," agreed Joyce Karam, Washington correspondent for Al-Hayat newspaper, a pan-Arab daily. "Recent Nasrallah speeches and Hezbollah actions made many Christians challenge the alliance with Aoun."

"Yes, the resistance protects you and you embrace and protect it," Nasrallah was cited on Al-Manar TV May 22. "The resistance defends you, and you defend it because you are the resistance, and the resistance is you. Therefore, on 7 June when the entire world, the world media, will be watching the elections in Lebanon … we must be present in every village, township, farm, neighborhood, and city in southern Lebanon a festive scene like the festivities of victory, martyrs, and resistors."

With election results "foregone conclusions" in the Shiite, Sunni and Druze-majority districts, analysts noted the race was competitive in just a few Christian "swing" districts.

While March 14 lost two districts comprising 9 seats that it won in 2005, Baabda and Zgharta, the pro-Western alliance was able to hold on to many of its seats and gain enough seats (in Zahle and Metn) to make up for its losses elsewhere.

Overall, voter turnout was higher than normal, with an estimated 55% percent of Lebanese voters participating. Sunni turnout was particularly important in Zahle, a town in the Bekaa Valley where March 14 swept all nine seats in a surprise victory.

"Sunnis voted in huge numbers, and made a difference" in key districts like Zahle, said Karam. "In some districts, there was just a 50 vote difference" between the competing coalitions. "It was very close."

What accounts for the many predictions that March 8 would do better? "Essentially, while the drop in Aoun’s support had been pointed to by various polls, the true extent — and how this would be represented in the actual elections — wasn’t clear until the votes were in," Ryan said. "Second, opposition pollsters were vocal and certain about their results, whereas March 14 did not push its internal polling, which pointed to a slight win for them, very hard in the media. Third, I think the focus on the possible consequences of an opposition victory in the media contributed to a sense that the opposition was going to win, if only narrowly."

"This is a big surprise and very good news," said Andrew Exum, a Lebanon expert at the Center for a New American Security. In a blog post, Exum counted among the polls’ winners: Saudi money, U.S. Central Command and the Defense Department ("both would have faced some really tough questions from the Congress concerning aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces if Hezbollah had won"), and, perhaps surprisingly, Hezbollah.

"Hey, look on the bright side, boys!" Exum wrote. "Now you don’t have to govern. It’s a lot easier to be in the opposition if you’re Hezbollah. You still keep your arms, and there is less pressure from the outside. I can’t help but think not everyone in Hezbollah was looking forward to all the attention that would have come along with an electoral victory."

Among the losers Exum identified? Israeli hardliners: "Boy, they would have loved it if they could have shoved a Hezbollah victory in Obama’s face. And if Hezbollah had won, its arms would have been the subject of more scrutiny from the international community, perhaps. Now all eyes will be on the Iranian elections," scheduled for June 12.

"We take what we get," a White House official said of the forthcoming Iranian elections. "Whether with Ahmadinejad or Khatami in power, it’s clear the Iranian president has limited influence, either for better or for worse. So even were Ahmadinejad to lose, there will not suddenly be flowers blooming" in Washington’s efforts to engage Iran.

Laura Rozen writes The Cable daily at ForeignPolicy.com.

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