BEIRUT (Reuters) – The son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri is set to cruise to victory when Beirut voters go to the polls on Sunday in the first parliamentary elections in three decades with no Syrian troops in Lebanon.
The polls, staggered over four weekends, mark a new era for Lebanon after Hariri”s Feb. 14 assassination prompted hundreds of thousands of Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims to take to the streets in unprecedented anti-Syrian protests.
Damascus buckled under international pressure and withdrew its 14,000 troops from Lebanon last month in line with a previously ignored U.N. Security Council resolution.
The elections, starting just before parliament”s term expires, may return many of the same faces to the 128-member assembly, but Syria will no longer be the sole arbiter of Lebanese politics as it had been since the 1975-90 civil war.
"We hope the elections will be a step in the process of consolidating Lebanon”s sovereignty and freedom from Syria," U.S. ambassador Jeffrey Feltman told Reuters this week.
"There can be old faces, but not old priorities. There must be a visible change in performance."
Saad al-Hariri, anointed by his family to be his father”s political heir, is sure to top the vote in his Sunni stronghold of Beirut, where his Future bloc candidates have already won nine of the 19 seats at stake after their rivals withdrew.
For the first time in Lebanon, foreign observers, led by a 100-strong European Union team, will monitor the elections.
An electoral alliance of the pro-Syrian Amal and Hizbollah movements is likely to keep its grip on the Shi”ite south, which votes on June 5, and parts of eastern Lebanon”s Bekaa Valley.
Six of the south”s 23 seats have already gone uncontested to the Amal-Hizbollah list, including one for Bahiya al-Hariri, sister of the assassinated billionaire businessman. Closer contests are expected in the mainly Druze and Maronite Christian central district of Mount Lebanon, as well as in the mixed Muslim-Christian north and some parts of the Bekaa.
Former Prime Minister Omar Karami is among several Syrian allies to quit the race, anticipating defeat by the loose opposition front that toppled his government in February.
The opposition has since split, with Maronite former army chief Michel Aoun failing to forge an electoral alliance with Hariri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and their Christian allies.
Muslims and Christians are guaranteed an equal number of parliamentary seats under Lebanon”s power-sharing system.
Most members of the new parliament are likely to favor reshaping ties with Syria on a more equal basis.
Among the assembly”s first tasks will be deciding whether to keep staunch Syrian ally Nabih Berri as its speaker. It will also have to decide whether to press an opposition demand for the removal of Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud.
Any government formed after the polls ending on June 19 will be under pressure to tackle financial problems worsened by Hariri”s killing and enact reforms demanded by creditors who have helped Lebanon cope with its $33 billion debt.
Perhaps Lebanon”s biggest challenge after the polls will be how to deal with a U.N. Security Council demand, strongly backed by Washington, for Hizbollah guerrillas to disarm.
The Iranian-backed group”s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, told a rally this week it would fight to keep its weapons, which he said were vital to defend Lebanon against attack from Israel.