BEIRUT (Reuters) – Voters head to the polls in central and eastern Lebanon today (Sunday) , where anti-Syrian factions are squaring off against each other in the most crucial round of Lebanon’s parliamentary election.

With 58 seats up for grabs in the Mount Lebanon and eastern Bekaa Valley districts, the shape of the next 128-seat assembly should become clear in the penultimate stage of Lebanon’s first general election since Syria pulled its troops out.

Forty-two legislators have already been elected in the first two rounds of voting in Beirut and south.

Those rounds brought no surprises, with the son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri winning a landslide in the mainly Sunni capital and a joint Hizbollah and Amal slate sweeping polls in the southern Shi’ite heartland.

But anti-Syrian factions are set to battle it out in the Christian and Druze mountain stronghold before the election wraps up in northern Lebanon on June 19.

The most heated battles involve Christian leader Michel Aoun against a coalition led by Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt in the central Baabda-Aley constituency and against a strong Christian alliance in the Byblos-Kesrwan district.

Aoun, a former general, has fallen out with the other anti-Syrian leaders since returning to Lebanon in May from 14 years of exile.

He slams his rivals as “traditionalists” who benefited from Syria’s role in Lebanon since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war only turning against Damascus in recent months.

Aoun says he is a “reformist” and vows to fight corruption he says leaders from across the political divide indulged in.

Anti-Syrian factions are set to win a majority in the assembly, riding a wave of sympathy over Hariri’s killing.

Hariri’s killing sparked massive street protests that forced Syria to bow to international pressure to end its 29-year military and intelligence presence in Lebanon in April.


The election comes days after U.N. chief
Kofi Annan decided to send a verification team back to Lebanon to check claims that Syrian intelligence agents were still in the country.

A U.N. verification team reported on May 23 that Syria had withdrawn all its soldiers but said there was no way to determine if plainclothes agents remained. Syria says it has pulled all its troops and spies out of its smaller neighbor.

Jumblatt, who has already won his seat by default, says Syrian agents are running free in the country and warned of more assassinations ordered by Damascus. He accused President Emile Lahoud of helping pro-Syrian Lebanese security forces.

The United States says it is concerned about covert Syrian interference in Lebanon and charged on Friday that it had information about a Syrian hit list targeting Lebanese leaders. Syria denied the charge.

Among the biggest challenges facing the new parliament is a decision on whether Lahoud, who is close to Damascus, should stay or go. Many anti-Syrian politicians want him to resign.

It must also deal with the issue of disarming Hizbollah, as demanded by a U.N. resolution, reshaping its ties with Syria and agreeing a less controversial electoral law.

The existing law has resulted in a series of unlikely alliances that have left voters with little real choice.

Jumblatt and a top aide won by default in the Shouf district where their seats were uncontested. The Druze chief has allied with the Christian Lebanese Forces group, a civil war foe.

Shi’ite Muslim Hizbollah is fielding one candidate on the Jumblatt ticket in Mount Lebanon and six others in the Bekaa constituency of Baalbek-Hermel. If it is successful, the group will have 14 members in parliament compared to 12 now.

Aoun and his allies are fielding 25 candidates, mostly in Mount Lebanon. Aoun is heading an eight-member ticket in Byblos-Kesrwan constituency.