|Hizbullah and Amal sweep South Lebanon polls
|Two of Lebanon's pro-Syrian parties, Hizbullah, and Amal, claimed victory in South Lebanon in the first parliamentary elections free of Syrian control in three decades last night.
Unofficial results showed the pair had, as widely expected, made a clean sweep of the 23 parliamentary seats up for grabs in the border area next to Israel.
Hizbullah's strong showing in the polls further underlines its determination to ignore pressure from the international community to disarm.
The U.S. has labeled Hizbullah a terrorist group, but the group is expected to increase its 12 seats in Parliament to 14 when the elections are completed at the end of the month.
Hizbullah and Amal called the polls a referendum on whether Lebanon's resistance should be disarmed following calls by the U.S. and by last year's UN Security Council Resolution 1559.
Hizbullah's southern commander Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, said: "The voters are telling the world that they want to protect the resistance."
He added: "Today's electoral battle has one purpose: To show the Americans and those who participated in devising Resolution 1559 that no resolution can influence on the people of the South."
Lebanon's Parliament Speaker and Amal leader Nabih Berri urged the group's supporters to turn out in large numbers "and vote against Resolution 1559."
He said: "I thank all my people in the great south for renewing their confidence in the list."
Turnout for yesterday's round of polling was estimated at 44 percent, down slightly on 45 percent turnout in 2000, but a huge increase on last week's first round polling in Beirut of 28 percent.
But again voting was marred by a low turnout among Christian voters, who have criticized the legal framework for the elections, which they insist diminishes Christian votes by their inclusion in large Muslim voting districts.
International monitors said the poll was "excellent."
After touring the area, Chief European Union Observer Jose Ignacio Salafranca said: "The elections in the South are going well and the reports we are receiving from our observers show that things are going normally."
Lebanon's premier, Najib Mikati, who also toured the area, added: "The parliamentary elections taking place today in the South in a climate of absolute honesty, transparency and freedom."
But in Jezzine, where most of the area's Christian voters are based, turnout was 20 percent, compared to 56 percent in the Shiite governorate of Nabatieh.
In Homzieh, a Christian village in Jezzine, turnout was as low as one percent, a figure heavily contrasted by another Jezzine village, Rihane, which saw a record 93 percent turnout.
In Sidon, Lebanon's third largest city, the turnout reached 44 percent.
In Jezzine, anti-Syrian Christian activists who are loyal to Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun handed out leaflets which read: "democracy has been burned in Parliament," to protest the unfair electoral law.
In contrast, Shiite areas were crammed with Hizbullah and Amal supporters clad in yellow and green, the colors of their Resistance Development and Liberation list.
Six candidates had already won uncontested last week, and with only 37 candidates disputing the remaining 17 seats, the battle was not fierce.
Lebanon's elections are governed by a majority winner takes all system, and the division of districts in the South includes sparsely populated Christian districts with dense Shiite areas.
The two Shiite groups are strongest in South Lebanon, which remained under Israeli occupation for 25 years, before the Jewish state was driven out by Hizbullah in 2000.
Hizbullah, backed by Iran and Syria, had already won a seat in Beirut last week-end. It is fielding 14 candidates in total, while Amal is fielding 15 candidates.
Despite having little chance in the face of the colossal Hizbullah-Amal coalition, independent candidates remained active throughout the day.
Candidate Anwar Yassin criticized the coalition for monopolizing the concept of resistance. Yassin, a Communist who spent 17 years in Israeli detention for conducting an attack on Israeli troops in South Lebanon, said: "This vote is meant to object the monopoly that is being imposed in the South."
The Daily Star