By Massoud A Derhally
June 8 (Bloomberg) -- Lebanon's pro-Western coalition defeated the Iran-backed Hezbollah bloc to win re-election in a vote that may help President Barack Obama reinvigorate peace efforts in the Middle East.
The governing alliance headed by Saad Hariri gained 71 seats in yesterday's election to the 128-member parliament, according to official results announced by Interior Minister Ziad Baroud at a press conference in Beirut today. The Hezbollah-led grouping won 57 seats, he said.
Victory for Hariri's coalition comes days after Obama's June 4 visit to Cairo and his call for a "new beginning" between the U.S. and the Muslim world. Hezbollah has opposed American policy in the region, mocked Arab allies of the U.S. for failing to help the Palestinians, and resisted international efforts to disband its militia, which fought a monthlong war with Israel in 2006.
"This was the first real victory by pro-American groups in the ideological battle that has defined this region in the last 10 years," said Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut. Previously, "every time the U.S. tried to help somebody in the region, it hurt them and they lost."
The U.S. classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist group and backs United Nations resolutions to disarm its militia. Vice- President Joe Biden signaled during a visit last month that the U.S. may reconsider aid to Lebanon -- worth $1 billion in the past three years -- if the Hezbollah bloc won the vote.
Concern over the financial consequences of a Hezbollah-led government may have helped Hariri win votes, said Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
"The line of the pro-Western coalition was, if you vote for those guys then Lebanon is going to be Gaza and Iran," he said. "That's a bleak picture, and the Hezbollah alliance didn't have a comeback."
The election result was a "big surprise," as the Hezbollah coalition was expected to win a narrow majority, and may increase pressure for the Shiite group to disarm, said Ghassan Schbley, an analyst at the Rand Corporation.
"The challenge now will be to see how the next government will be shaped and if the pro-Western coalition will form a national unity government that includes Hezbollah and its allies," he said.
Forming a new government may take more than a week, based on previous elections.
The winning coalition plans to nominate Hariri, the son of former premier Rafiq Hariri who was killed by a bomb in 2005, as prime minister, Marwan Hamadeh, a lawmaker and key Hariri ally, said in an interview today. The victors are ready to enter talks on a national unity government with Hezbollah and its allies provided there are no preconditions, he said.
Hezbollah and its allies were granted a veto on government policy when they entered the current unity government a year ago, under an accord aimed at ending clashes between the two camps in May 2008 that killed at least 80 people.
Led by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah won popularity by driving the Israeli army out of south Lebanon in 2000 to end an 18-year occupation, and by fighting Israel again in 2006.
U.S. allies in the Middle East will likely welcome the Hariri victory. Egypt last month accused Hezbollah of plotting terrorist attacks in the country, and detained 49 people it said were the group's agents. Saudi Arabia and Jordan have expressed concern over growing Shiite and Iranian influence in the region.
Israel's Foreign Ministry said in an e-mailed statement that any new Lebanese government must ensure the country is not used as a base for attacks on Israel, and must clamp down on arms smuggling to Palestinians via Lebanon.
As in past Lebanese elections, both sides accused each other of vote-buying. Abdo Saad, the head of the independent Beirut Center for Research and Information, said before the election that hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on buying votes, mostly by regional powers such as Hezbollah's backer Iran and Saudi Arabia, which supports Hariri.
Lebanon's political system distributes parliament seats and government jobs among different groups. The president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite. Hariri's coalition includes Sunnis, Christians and Druze, while Hezbollah's main ally was the Christian party of former army general Michel Aoun.
With voting split along sectarian lines, and the Shiite and Sunni districts largely locked up, the Christians were the swing voters in the election.
Aoun's failure to win over enough Christians to the Hezbollah bloc was key to its defeat, said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East Center in Beirut. Concern that secular lifestyles may be threatened under a Hezbollah-led government backed by Iran, and that Syrian influence in the country may revive, was a deterrent to such voters, he said.
"His alliance with Hezbollah is simply very difficult to sell to many Christians," Salem said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Massoud A Derhally in Beirut at firstname.lastname@example.orgLast Updated: June 8, 2009 09:07 EDT