Lebanon's Western-backed ruling majority was dealt a blow yesterday in by-elections that deeply split the country's Christian camp and boosted the Syrian-backed opposition ahead of a presidential poll.
Official results showed the candidate representing opposition leader Michel Aoun winning by a slim margin of 418 votes over former president Amin Gemayel, who was backed by the ruling Western-backed coalition.
The outcome of the vote was important as it was expected to show which way the country's divided Christian community was leaning ahead of a presidential election scheduled for next month. Lebanon's president is traditionally a Maronite Christian who is chosen by parliament.
The by-elections on Sunday were to replace two murdered anti-Syrian members of parliament, the latest in a spate of politically linked killings that have rocked the country since the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Gemayel was vying to replace his son Pierre, a Christian Cabinet member and lawmaker who was shot dead last November. In Beirut, the vote was to replace Walid Eido, a Sunni Muslim lawmaker who was killed in a car bomb in June.
The vote to replace Eido was easily won by pro-government candidate Mohamad Amin Itani.
Several Lebanese newspapers said although Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement emerged the winner in the poll, the party had nonetheless been weakened politically as it only clinched a narrow victory.
The movement of Aoun, a declared presidential candidate, garnered most of the Christian vote in 2005 legislative polls, but his popularity has waned since he forged a shock alliance last year with the Iran- and Syria-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
"A difference of 418 votes: a fake victory," blared a headline in the pro-government French daily L'Orient Le Jour.
The paper said that had it not been for the support of the Armenian community in one district, where Gemayel alleged vote-rigging, Aoun's party would have been trampled in the polls.
"Aoun won a seat in parliament but is no longer the sole Maronite leader," the Arabic pro-government daily Al Liwa said.
But the opposition newspaper Al-Akhbar said although Aoun won by a slim margin, the results put to rest claims by the ruling majority that he no longer represented the Christian community.
"Even though his victory was not overwhelming, Aoun came out the winner," the newspaper said. "He has answered to those who pretend that he is no longer the leader of the Christian community."
Following the by-elections, parliament's challenge will still be to elect a new president to succeed pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud by a Nov. 25 deadline.