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Opposition Candidate Ahead in Lebanon

June 3, 2002

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BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ An opposition candidate received three more votes than a government-backed competitor _ his niece _ in a parliamentary by-election that could influence Lebanon’s next general elections, according to unofficial results announced by a television station Monday.

A loss for government-supported candidate Mirna Murr would be a blow to Syria, which is the main power broker in Lebanon and keeps 20,000 troops in the country. Official results of the vote were to be announced later Monday.

Mirna Murr’s uncle and political rival Gabriel Murr, who is backed by right-wing Christian groups that reject Syria’s dominance, was ahead by three votes with all the votes counted, according to the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.

Gabriel Murr had 34,894 votes and Mirna Murr received 34,891 votes, said LBC, which was the only television station allowed inside the vote-counting center.

A victory for Gabriel Murr could boost the opposition’s chances in the 2005 elections to replace the 128-member parliament, which is now packed with pro-Syrian lawmakers.

The election was held to fill a seat allocated to the Greek Orthodox community under Lebanon’s Christian-Muslim political power-sharing system. The seat was left vacant by the death of an elderly lawmaker.

Some 6,000 security troops were deployed to prevent trouble in the voting district, comprising 95 towns and villages in the Metn region of Mount Lebanon, in the country’s Christian heartland northeast of Beirut. There was no violence

Some 155,000 people were eligible to vote, and Interior Minister Elias Murr said turnout was about 45 percent.

Gabriel Murr and the right-wing Christian opposition oppose Syria’s dominance of Lebanon and call for it to withdraw its troops. On the opposing side, Mirna Murr’s father, former deputy Prime Minister Michel Murr, is a close Syrian ally.

A long-standing dispute between the two Murr family branches flared anew when Gabriel Murr entered the race just weeks before what had promised to be an unremarkable election. Each side has accused the other of intimidation and vote buying.

Gabriel Murr has demanded the firing of Interior Minister Elias Murr _ his nephew and Mirna Murr’s sister _ after the minister said last week that voting in secret behind a curtain was not compulsory.

The opposition took that as an indication that the interior minister was preparing to influence the vote in favor of his sister by making it possible to monitor who was voting for whom.

Elias Murr, whose ministry oversees elections, responded by charging that the opposition was trying to cover up what he said was its vote buying.

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