BEIRUT — Lebanon's ruling pro-Western coalition appeared headed for a decisive political victory over its Iranian-backed Hezbollah rivals early Monday in the Middle East nation's most fiercely contested parliamentary election in decades.
Fireworks echoed through Beirut neighborhoods as unofficial results indicated that Hezbollah and its Christian allies were dealt a surprising setback at the polls.
With soldiers looking on, jubilant supporters of the ruling coalition poured into the streets, waving flags, honking car horns and chanting political slogans.
We "will return as the majority," Samir Geagea, head of the powerful Lebanese Forces party that is part of the pro-Western ruling coalition known as March 14, told LBC television.
Both sides had predicted no more than a narrow victory. But unofficial results, which were expected to be made final later Monday, showed March 14 politicians winning most of the close races. Analysts projected that they would secure at least 70 seats in the 128-seat parliament. The coalition held 70 seats in the outgoing parliament while Hezbollah and its allies had 58.
The outcome was a triumph for the March 14 coalition of Sunni Muslim, Druze and Christian politicians and a victory as well for President Barack Obama as he embarks on a daunting effort to bring new stability to the Middle East.
In the final weeks of campaigning, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both flew to Beirut, where they offered tacit support for the pro-Western parties and warned that the United States might cut off financial support for Lebanon if its allies lost.
Last week, Obama flew to Cairo, where he delivered a well-received speech in which he called for a "new beginning" in relations between the United States and the Arab and Muslim world.
"With the optimism after Obama's speech to the Arab world, this will be a good victory for Lebanon and the region," said Nauron, a 38-year-old female clothing store manager who was rushing through Beirut's largely Christian Ashrafieh neighborhood, a critical battleground in the race.
In the speech, Obama said America would "welcome all elected, peaceful governments -- provided they govern with respect for all their people."
Monday's defeat for the Hezbollah coalition, known as March 8, allowed Obama to avoid an early challenge to his guiding philosophy.
"If March 8 had won, we would have been under total isolation from the whole world," said Elias Hadad, a 28-year-old university student. "Lebanon is not for the Islamic resistance."
While the results do not assure stability in Lebanon, Hezbollah leaders immediately signaled that they would not challenge the results.
"We consider that Lebanon is ruled by partnership and whatever the results of the elections are, we cannot change the standing delicate balances or repeat the experiences of the past, which led to catastrophes on Lebanon and showed the inability of one party monopolizing power," Hezbollah lawmaker Hassan Fadlallah told Reuters.
Heading into the election, Hezbollah and its allies held minority veto power in the 128-seat Lebanese parliament.
Some analysts expect a similar power sharing arrangement for the next parliament as the best way to assure stability in Lebanon.
"The road is still very long, and the project of the state will not be implemented unless by dialogue," Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt, another critical member of the ruling coalition, told reporters after the vote.
"The situation in the multi-sectarian regions is very sensitive, and we should stop and contemplate the future," he said. "Our future is built through dialogue."
Sunday's election was one of the most fiercely contested for Lebanon in decades. Government officials said more than 52 percent of Lebanon's 3 million voters cast ballots, a high number for the nation of 4 million.
(Special correspondent Moe Ali Nayel contributed to this report from Beirut.)
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