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Final round of campaign set in Lebanon elections

Associated Press

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Candidates for Lebanon’s parliament wrapped up last-minute campaigning Saturday, a day before the final round of elections that will decide whether the opposition can end Syria’s three-decade domination of the political landscape.

The staggered parliamentary elections over four weeks in different regions are the first to be free of Syrian domination since Damascus deployed forces to Lebanon in 1976 in support of Christian fighters in the country’s civil war. Damascus’ withdrew its last troops in April under massive international pressure.

With 100 legislators picked in three previous rounds, the remaining 28 parliament seats decided today in northern Lebanon have become the most prized of this election. The vote carries symbolic weight as well since the region borders Syria and has been home to some of Damascus’ strongest allies.

The main opposition alliance – led by the son of the assassinated ex-premier Rafik Hariri – needs to win 21 of the 28 seats today to gain control of the legislature after losses to former Gen. Michel Aoun, a one-time ally to the anti-Syrian opposition.

“It is a tough battle and everyone is preparing for it,” said Farid Khazen, chairman of the political sciences department at the American University of Beirut. He won a seat on Aoun’s slate in central Lebanon.

By going his own way, Aoun – who is allied with both anti- and pro-Syrian figures – thwarted the alliance’s hopes of gaining a majority in the 128-member parliament during earlier rounds.

“This is not only the last stage,” Saad Hariri, the assassinated former leader’s son, said before the election. “For us and for you, it is the last chance to save and regain Lebanon and finally eliminate (Syrian) tutelage.”

Though Syria no longer chooses who runs – and who wins – in Lebanon’s elections, reports of its continued influence are an issue.

Opposition candidates have accused Syria and its allies in the Lebanese intelligence services of pressuring voters. Syria and Aoun dismiss those claims. The pro-Syrians complain that their opponents are buying votes and stirring up sectarian tensions to win the large Muslim vote in the region.

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