BEIRUT —  Rival Lebanese factions face off this weekend in disputed elections to replace two slain MPs, in a showdown seen as a test for the country’s divided Christian factions ahead of presidential polls.  Sunday’s by-elections are being held to replace two  MPs killed earlier this year in attacks blamed by the Western-backed ruling majority on former powerbroker Damascus, which backs the Lebanese opposition.

The campaign leading up to the polls has exacerbated tensions within the Christian camp, which has been divided since the November resignation of six pro-Syrian cabinet ministers. The polls also come amid an 11-week standoff at a Palestinian refugee camp between the army and Islamists.

The two MPs being replaced are industry minister Pierre Gemayel, a Christian member of parliament who was gunned down in a Beirut suburb November 21, and Sunni Muslim MP Walid Eido, killed in a car bombing in the capital June 13. Although the elections to replace Eido in Beirut are virtually guaranteed to be won by the candidate of the ruling majority, the vote in the Metn region, a Christian stronghold northeast of the capital, has the country in suspense.  Former president Amine Gemayel is vying to replace his son, Pierre, while the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun has presented Camille Khoury, a doctor, as its candidate.

Observers say that the election outcome will be an indicator as to which way the Christian camp is leaning ahead of presidential elections to replace pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud by a November 25 deadline.
Parliament elects the president, traditionally a Maronite Christian, while the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim. "Aoun wants to prove that he is the only representative of the Christians and therefore the candidate for the presidential elections," Joseph Abu Khalil, an aid to Gemayel, said.

But Antoine Nasrallah, spokesman for the FPM, said that the vote will set the record straight as to which leader is more popular and where the presidential elections are headed. "If Gemayel fails, he will lose any chance for the presidential elections … and if Gemayel wins, he will kill any ambition for Aoun to become president," Nasrallah said. He added that he was confident that his camp will win Sunday "by a good margin."

Aoun’s movement won a vast majority of the Christian vote in 2005 legislative polls, but his popularity has slipped since a shock alliance last year with the Iran- and Syria-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Tension has been rising in the country ahead of Sunday’s polls in the Metn where a brawl among rival supporters last week forced the army to intervene.

A war of words between Gemayel and Aoun has also escalated, prompting influential Maronite Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir to warn that "any house which becomes divided will crumble."

Lahoud has meanwhile refused to counter-sign the government’s decree on holding the by-elections, on grounds that the cabinet was "illegitimate" since the resignation of the pro-Syrian ministers.

Parliament’s challenge is to elect a successor to Lahoud. The president is elected by a two-thirds majority in parliament, failing which a second round is held with only an absolute majority needed.

While the majority controls enough seats to elect a president, it still needs the opposition to take part for the two-thirds quorum that parliament traditionally needs to convene.