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Last Updated: Monday, 6 August 2007, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
No clear winner in Lebanon votes
By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Beirut

General Michel Aoun (archive picture)
Mr Aoun's candidate won but his share of the Christian vote may be down
Lebanon is now facing its biggest political crisis since the end of its long civil war.

It is trapped between the forces that look to Syria and those in the government who look West.

The US-backed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the weekend's by-elections "were a civilised response to political assassination".

But in truth they have changed very little. In fact they could even have cemented the divisions.

Perhaps the only cause for celebration was the size of the turnout on Sunday. Despite concerns of further violence, people came to vote in their thousands.

The Metn elections ended politically without a victor and a vanquished... But this is small comfort to Gemayel who suffered in his own backyard
Former PM Selim al-Hoss
The closest battle was in the Christian heartland of Metn - where they voted to replace the murdered MP Pierre Gemayel.

Running for the vacant seat was Pierre's father, Amin Gemayel, a leading Christian figure, former president and staunch supporter of the anti-Syria government.

The lesser known candidate, Dr Camille Khoury, stood for the opposition party of the other main Christian leader, General Michel Aoun.

'Aoun dented'

In the end the count went to the wire.

Mr Khoury took the seat by just 418 votes out of about 79,000 cast, a margin which many say undermines General's Aoun's leadership.

Pie chart showing make-up of Lebanese parliament by bloc
He had claimed - based on the results of parliamentary elections in 2005 - to enjoy 70% of the Christian vote. But this suggests he has gone backwards.

"The Metn election ended politically without a victor and a vanquished," said former Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss, a Sunni elder statesman.

"If the contest was a contest of sizes, then both competitors were effectively down-sized.

"The dent in General Aoun's popularity is perhaps due to the Christian dismay at the accord he forged with Hezbollah in 2006.

"But this is small comfort to Gemayel who suffered in his own backyard."

Presidential ambitions

The bigger question is where it leaves the country.

Dead MPs Walid Eido (left) and Pierre Gemayel
Metn: Bitterly opposed rivals in a Christian heartland fight to replace MP Pierre Gemayel (above right), shot dead in November. Gen Michel Aoun's candidate wins
West Beirut: Ruling coalition candidate has easy win in a mainly Sunni area where MP Walid Eido (left) was killed by a bomb in June

Gen Aoun is not a "pro-Syrian". In fact as prime minister in the 80s he fought the Syrians.

But as a presidential candidate for the crucial upcoming election in September, he is the preferred choice of the pro-Syrian Shia Islamist group Hezbollah, which is allied to Damascus.

Crucially, the presidency is always reserved for the leading Christian Maronite.

A closer look at this vote shows it was Amin Gemayel who took two-thirds of the Maronite vote.

Victory for Gen Aoun's party, was only guaranteed by the minority Armenian Christians - it seems almost all of their 8,000 votes went with General Aoun's candidate.

It leaves the Christian community bitterly divided - and the future presidency very much in doubt.

Both government and opposition will claim to have the Christian vote.

Bleak warning

In the other by-election in West Beirut, to replace Walid Eido, the vote went, as expected, to the Sunni candidate, put forward by the majority leader Saad Hariri.

But all in all, this will have been a disappointing night for the anti-Syrian government.

In the past year, they have lost two seats to the assassins and only regained one of them.

The standoff between the anti-Syrian government and pro-Syrian opposition will continue, with little sign of any breakthrough.

But should they fail to solve their differences, these splits will become more dangerous.

Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister who is mediating between the two sides, has already warned that if they cannot find a compromise on many of the issues that divide them Lebanon could soon return to civil war.

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