By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press Writer 9 PM ET BIKFAYA, Lebanon – Despite fears of violence, tens of thousands of Lebanese voted peacefully Sunday to replace two assassinated lawmakers

"We have been informed of an attempt to cancel one of the ballot boxes. We hope the old mistakes committed in Metn are not repeated," Aoun said. Gemayel said an attempt at forging election results by the Armenian Tashnag Party had been detected, adding that "the dead and those residing abroad" had voted in Bourj Hammoud.

"We want elections to be repeated in Bourj Hammoud district," Gemayel said, "those who announce victory should wait for the official results and the judiciary to have its say first."

Gemayel said complaints arrived from various polling stations that irregularities had been spotted "We have won, we insist that there be self control in the Metn," Gemayel said.

The number of the disputed votes from Bourj Hammoud varies between 600 and 160. Supporters from both political parties flocked to Jdeideh late Sunday night, gathering in the main square while the army stood between them to prevent clashes from developing. The mood was aggressive as supporters of both factions raised party flags and honked their horns, closing access to the square.

Preliminary results started coming in the early evening, with the first 114 ballot boxes out of 348 counted giving a slim lead to Gemayel, who got 13,079 votes, while his opponent got 12,240 votes. That lead widened slightly to 2,918 votes in favor of Gemayel after the counting of 265 ballot boxes. With 275 boxes counted, the lead went down to 2,180 votes.

The high voter turnout in the Metn by-election on Sunday and the democratic mood that prevailed proved that security concerns had taken a back seat at this pivotal juncture. In some polling stations, voter turnout reached 80 percent.

Mustapha Sabsabi, in charge of one of the polling stations in Zalka, said that around 500 out of 700 voters had cast their ballots at the station by mid-day. "We had a very good turnout, we were busy all day, we had no rest," Sabsabi said.

In Bteghrine, hometown of FPM candidate’s supporter MP Michel Murr, the turnout was close to 50 percent around noon according to local Mukhtar Najem Saliba, who was at the Bteghrine secondary school helping people get to the right room to cast their ballots. "It was a peaceful and democratic day so far we hope it stays that way till the end of the day," Saliba said.

In Jdeideh, even Sunni, Shiite and Allawite voters turned out in substantial numbers, around 40 percent had cast their ballots by mid-day. "The day was very calm, a democratic and cooperative mood prevailed," said Pedro Qnaider, in charge of one of the polling stations in Jdeideh.

In Bikfaya, Gemayel’s hometown, voting started early and the former president got a majority of votes. The Phalange Party campaign machinery worked through the previous night. By the morning the town was decked with Phalange Party flags, banners and pictures of Gemayel and his slain son. White roses were distributed to voters by Phalange Party supporters.

"This is the sign of peace," said Elie Daou, who cast his vote in favor of Gemayel.

"This is a day of referendum, a day to choose between two directions, one of sovereignty and freedom and the other of subservience," Daou said.

Another voter who did not want his name published said: "I always vote for the Gemayel family, let Qanso and the others go and vote in the Bekaa," a reference to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party leader.

Gemayel was accompanied by his wife Joyce and Patricia Gemayel, the widow of his son, assassinated Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel.

"On this day we have to remember the martyr Pierre Gemayel and all the country’s martyrs, those of the army and of the Cedar Revolution and all who fell for Lebanon, for freedom and sovereignty," Gemayel told reporters after casting his own vote.

Amin Gemayel said the electoral competition Sunday was a pivotal one, adding that the battle was aimed against political parties following the Syrian line, naming among these Hizbullah and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. "Are all these political parties that support the Free Patriotic Movement doing so free of charge, just to please General Aoun? Or do they have other motives and are there other allies trying to regain the Syrian role on Lebanese soil?" Gemayel asked.

However, Aoun asked the people of Metn Sunday to follow him "toward the future of Lebanon." He reaffirmed that the alliance between the FPM, the Tashnag Party and Murr is a "firm alliance that is unshaken by rumor."

Speaking on Sunday to OTV, Aoun blamed Phalange Party founder the late President Pierre Gemayel for allowing the Syrians into Lebanon.

"We will celebrate our victory at the close of the polls, the victory of the national interest over foreign interests because the history of Amin Gemayel is known, it is filled with instances of collaboration with the foreigner against his country," Aoun said.

Aoun supporters moved in convoys around the Metn and had a strong turnout outside polling stations, wearing orange and chanting FPM slogans. Turnout was especially high in Bourj Hammoud and Zalka. In one polling station in Bourj Hammoud 207 registered voters out of 440 had cast their ballots by noon.

Murr, speaking to reporters after casting his ballot in his hometown of Bteghrine, said his supporters’ votes all went to the FPM candidate "without hesitation and out of conviction." The Aoun and Murr campaign delegates were out in force in Bteghrine.

In Qornet al-Hamra, the hometown of Khoury, the orange FPM flags dominated, although at times orange and Phalange flags rested side by side, sharing limited space on electricity poles. Khoury cast his ballot early Sunday morning at the Rosary School in Qornet al-Hamra amid chants of support for Aoun and the FPM.

Khoury received one of the white roses that were being distributed by Phalange Party supporters outside the polling station. Khoury told reporters afterward that the electoral battle was not personally aimed against Gemayel but against the political track of March 14.

Sabaa says voting ‘calm and democratic’

BEIRUT: Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa said the Beirut and Metn by-elections had taken place in a "calm and democratic atmosphere," in an official statement released by his office at the end of voting on Sunday.

Sabaa said there had been a large voter turnout, and the "fact that the opposition supporters voted in such large numbers provides the biggest evidence for the legitimacy of the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora."

"The Interior Ministry and municipalities proved their impartiality by keeping equal distance from all candidates," said the statement faxed to The Daily Star.

Sabaa said any problems that may have occurred during the poll were "immediately" resolved and taken care of by the army and the police deployed throughout the Metn and Beirut’s second district.

Sabaa said he would hold a news conference to announce the official results, either late Sunday or early Monday, when all votes had been tallied. – The Daily Star

Sunday’s vote took place amid tight security in two electoral districts, one in Beirut and the other in Lebanon’s Metn region, a Christian stronghold where the community is deeply divided.

The Interior Ministry said official results would be announced late Sunday or early Monday, whenever vote counting is over. However, there were fraud accusations from each camp even before the polls closed.

In Beirut, the vote for Eido’s seat appeared to have been easily won by Mohammed al-Amin Itani, a candidate of parliament majority leader Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, because the Hezbollah-led opposition there did not officially sponsor any candidate.

But in Metn, the vote for Gemayel’s seat was a bitter contest between two candidates. Amin Gemayel, the assassinated politician’s father who was president of Lebanon for much of the 1980s, competed for his son’s seat on behalf of the ruling coalition.

He faced off against Kamil Khoury, who is supported by Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, a former army commander and interim prime minister allied with the opposition.

Sunday’s elections are considered a key popularity test for Aoun and Gemayel. Both are Christians, and the interfaith balancing act that constitutes Lebanon’s constitution provides that the president must be a Christian and the current present must step down before Nov. 23.

Aoun has already said he would run for president.

After the polls closed, both sides claimed victory but neither offered any support for the claim.

"Congratulations for your victory," Gemayel told supporters outside his house. Aoun’s supporters were seen celebrating in convoys on the streets of Beirut.

Gemayel and his wife, Joyce, began the day by visiting their son’s grave before heading to the polling station.

"We visited Pierre to … promise him that his blood will not be in vain," Gemayel said.

"Vote for freedom and independence by voting for Gemayel in Metn and Itani in Beirut," read a banner at the entrance of Gemayel’s hometown of Bikfaya. Pictures of Gemayel and his slain son were displayed on balconies, cars and electricity poles.

"They have been provoking us all day," said Bahiya Mizher, a Aoun supporter wearing an orange T-shirt and cap — the color of his Free Patriotic Movement. "But God is with

us and we shall win." Mizher, like many, said the election is about much more than just a seat.

"The battle is between two diverging tracks. … What happens today will have major repercussions on the political future of the country," she said outside a Bikfaya polling station.

While pro-government politicians accuse the opposition of being agents for Iran and Syria, Hezbollah leaders and Aoun accuse the ruling majority of subservience to the United States.

Lahoud, considers Saniora’s government to be illegitimate.

Gemayel and the government have accused Damascus of being behind the assassination of his son and other anti-Syrian figures over the last two years. Syria has denied the allegations.

With Eido’s death, Saniora’s margin in parliament was whittled down to only four seats.