Tycoon Wins in Lebanon Election
Sep. 04, 2000
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ When Rafik Hariri resigned as prime minister just two years ago, the Lebanese people were sick of the construction tycoon they accused of spending the country into debt and economic hard times. Now, they want him back.
Official results released Monday showed a landslide victory for Hariri in Sunday's nationwide parliamentary elections, making him the top prospect for prime minister _ an appointment requiring a Syrian endorsement Hariri likely would get. Hariri has said it is too early to comment on whether he will seek the post.
Hariri-backed candidates also won overwhelmingly, ousting Prime Minister Salim Hoss and three members of his Cabinet from parliament and bolstering Hariri's chances to regain the premiership. And in south Lebanon, the results indicated that residents rewarded Hezbollah and Amal for their guerrilla war against nearly two decades of Israeli occupation that ended in May.
During his tenure, Hoss failed to deliver on pledges to deal with Lebanon's recession. That made Hariri _ whose wealth, status and charisma make him a powerful force in Lebanon even without political office _ look more appealing than when he resigned in 1998 following a power struggle with President Emile Lahoud.
``He is energetic, a construction magnate with powerful contacts abroad,'' said Violette Balaa, an economic analyst with the leading An-Nahar newspaper.
Voters had hoped Hoss would put a stop to the ``spending and money squandering'' under Hariri, Balaa said.
``That did not happen,'' she said. ``Many trust that Hariri learned from his mistakes and would restore investors' confidence.''
Syria, the ultimate guide of Lebanese politics and policies, essentially approves any premier in neighboring Lebanon. But that shouldn't provide any problems for Hariri, a friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad with professional ties involving vast economic investments in Syria.
Hariri made his fortune in construction in Saudi Arabia. He is said to have played a key role in arranging a meeting between Assad and French President Jacques Chirac last year and, this year, in introducing the new 34-year-old president to other Arab leaders. Hariri also handled construction of a Syrian presidential palace during the lengthy rule of Assad's father, the late Hafez Assad.
In an interview Monday evening with the British Broadcasting Corp., Hariri downplayed Syria's role in deciding Lebanon's political future.
``I think it's unfair ... to say they will have a say,'' he said. ``We have institutions, we have a constitution and it has to be respected.''
However, Hariri emphasized he was not saying Damascus should have a lesser role in Lebanese politics.
``I'm saying that we just made an election and there are so many deputies and it is up to them to decide who is the prime minister,'' he said. ``And this is the wish of Syria.''
Hariri's office refused interview requests with The Associated Press, saying he would address the press on Tuesday.
Declaring his desire for the premiership could set up a clash with President Lahoud, who must name the prime minister after polling legislators.
Lahoud, who was hand-picked for the presidency by Syria two years ago, vehemently opposes Hariri. Lahoud had backed Hoss, but he appears to have little option but to appoint Hariri if Hariri seeks the post and his legislative allies continue their support.
In a statement published in newspapers Monday, Lahoud said he will abide by the constitution and consult with the newly elected legislature on naming a new prime minister.
At the start of his 1992-98 tenure as premier, Hariri launched a multimillion-dollar reconstruction program to rebuild Lebanon following the 1975-90 civil war. The program initially revived the economy, but he was criticized harshly as his tenure wore on for saddling the country with $20 billion in debt and wasting public funds.
Lebanese had hoped the stagnating economy would improve under Hoss, a veteran politician and U.S.-educated economist. Instead, the recession deepened.
Hoss said Monday he would accept the election results, but he told reporters he lost because ``money was spent to influence the course of the elections.''
In the BBC interview, Hariri called Hoss' accusations ``unfortunate. He lost the election, so I'm not going to comment about what he said.''
Hariri also defended himself against the corruption accusations that blemished his previous stint as premier.
``I don't believe there was corruption. ... We had to build the infrastructure, we had to strengthen the army,'' he said. ``All this costs money, which we don't have. So, we had to borrow the money.''
In south Lebanon, an election coalition that included Christian candidates, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's pro-Syrian Amal group and its Shiite Muslim rivals of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah won all 23 parliamentary seats. The Amal-Hezbollah alliance has not yet announced whom it will back for prime minister.
Hezbollah and Amal led a guerrilla war against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. Their increased popularity after Israeli troops withdrew from the border zone in May, ending an 18-year occupation, appeared to pay off at the polls. Hezbollah increased its number of legislators from seven to nine.