Beirut, Lebanon,  (UPI) — Former renegade Lebanese army commander Gen. Michel Aoun emerged from the third round of Lebanon’s general elections as the Christians’ new prominent leader. 

Aoun’s stunning victory in the most crucial round of elections that took place Sunday and the defeat of the existing Christian moderate opposition candidates may well weaken Muslim opposition demands to force President Emile Lahoud out of office.

His followers and other candidates running on his slate won 15 out of 16 seats in the Christian Maronite heartland of North Metn and Kesrouan-Byblos. Pierre Gemayel, son of former President Amin Gemayel, was the only candidate on another list to have also won.

Farid al-Khazen, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said the heavy turnout in Sunday’s elections in North Metn region came as a surprise. He was among the Aoun-backed winning candidates.

According to the Ministry of Interior, the turnout reached 54 percent in Mount Lebanon and 52 percent in eastern Lebanon.

Al-Khazen explained that the Christians, who voted in great numbers, reflected a “grudge and a persisting feeling that they are being targeted.”

“We did not expect such a degree of popular reaction. It was unprecedented,” he told United Press International. “It was the need for a Christian commander who is able to object and confront.”

Aoun, the 72-year-old former army commander and a key player in the last years of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, returned last month from 15 years of exile in France.

His staunch opposition to Syria’s military presence and interference in Lebanon’s political affairs, his pledge to fight widespread corruption and his opposing stance against religious division, has attracted a growing number of Christians and allowed him to reach out to many Muslims.

After Syria pulled out its troops and intelligence services from Lebanon last April, Aoun declared his enmity towards Syria over. He said his focus shifted towards rebuilding an independent and sovereign Lebanon, free of corruption and confessional divisions.

Ironically, this did not prevent him from concluding political alliance with former Minister of Interior Michel Murr, once a powerful pro-Syrian ally in the North Metn region.

“This was a last-minute electoral alliance. After the Syrians withdrew from Lebanon, rules of the game changed,” said al-Khazen. “Demanding Syria’s pullout is no longer an issue.”

This prompted Druze leader and main opposition figure Walid Jumblatt — whose own list scored a sweeping victory in the Shouf mountains and the district of Baabda Aley — to blast Aoun for allowing himself to be used by Syria and its Lebanese allies to weaken the Christians. Jumblatt said it would allow another intervention by Damascus under the pretext of stabilizing Lebanon.

“(Syrian President) Bashar Assad and (Lebanese President) Emile Lahoud are intelligent. They brought Michel Aoun (back to Lebanon) to create tension with Hezbollah so to say to the Americans we can control the situation,” Jumblatt said in televised remarks Sunday night.

“We are back to 1976 when the Syrians entered Lebanon to protect the Christians and Lebanon was destroyed.”

Jumblatt described Aoun’s success as “a victory of extremism” over moderation — accusations that were strongly rejected by the general and his followers.

Among those who lost to Aoun was Nassib Lahoud, a well-respected moderate Christian opposition figure and a favorite presidential candidate. His defeat eliminates another stumbling bloc in Aoun’s aspirations to become Lebanon’s next president.

Al-Khazen rejected Jumblatt’s hinting of another possible internal war in Lebanon and said this was not an issue of extremism or moderation.

“The elections took place in a competitive way and it is a healthy, civilized and democratic process. It is the most honest elections,” he said.

“Was anyone killed in these elections? No. So why refer to civil war and extremism?”

Political analyst Sarkis Naoum noted that Sunday’s elections effectively demonstrated that Aoun has a large popular base.

“Aoun was consecrated as the Christians main leader as much as the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Druze have each their own leaders,” Naoum told UPI. “But would he be able to become a national leader? Can he? I don’t know. It’s yet to be seen”

The real test lies in whether Aoun and other Muslim and Christian opposition leaders are abe to set their differences apart, putting Lebanon’s interests ahead of their own.

“Aoun is democratic on one hand and at the same time a military man who does not like anyone to contradict him,” Naoum said.

Despite the fact that Aoun claimed to be different by preaching nationalism, voicing his determination to fight corruption and moving ahead with reforming Lebanon’s confessional system, in the end, he was no different from other politicians when it came to forging electoral alliances.

“No one is different than the other. Aoun may be different because he was not part of the political life in Lebanon during the past 15 years (when he was in exile in France and Lebanon under Syria’s rule),” Naoum said.

Gains by Jumblatt’s in the Shouf, Hezbollah and new Sunni leader Saad Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri, increased their standing in parliament after winning in eastern Lebanon.

The elections, which started May 29, are to be completed next Sunday when people in northern Lebanon go to the polls and where Aoun’s emerging power will face another test.

Once finalized, the new 128-member parliament will have to decide the fate of President Emile Lahoud amid calls — mainly by Muslim opposition — that he resigns. It will also have to draft a new election law and deal with renewed calls by the United States, France and the United Nations to disarm Hezbollah in line with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. While al-Khazen considers it was still too early to discuss the issue of reducing Lahoud’s term, Naoum said it will be raised again by the Muslim leaders and won’t be an easy tak.

Lahoud however made it clear that he intends to remain in his job until the very last minute of hi term.