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Lebanon's prime minister vote could bring upheaval


BEIRUT, Lebanon - Lebanon is inching toward a constitutional crisis - and a tough early test for Syria's new leader, Bashar el Assad - as it goes into a final round of parliamentary elections today.

Rafik Hariri, the flamboyant multibillionaire real estate developer, appears poised to roll up a majority in the 128-seat Parliament, probably 70 seats or more, in his effort to come back as prime minister.

But Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, anointed by Syria, appears determined to somehow block Hariri from regaining the office he held from 1992 to 1998. Hariri threw up showy projects, including rebuilding the downtown devastated by the 15-year civil war. Lahoud has accused him of plunging the country into debt and corruption.

The government took a terrific blow in the first round of elections Aug. 27 in the far north, the Christian heartland, and the Druze mountains, with final tallies showing 41 of the 63 seats going to government critics or candidates allied with Hariri. Riding a wave of economic discontent, the tycoon has built an imposing set of alliances for today's vote in Beirut, the south and the Bekaa region.

Winding up with a series of packed street rallies, Hariri exuded confidence yesterday.

"The polls are good," he said. "Tomorrow we will see if they are right. The battle is for Beirut."

Nevertheless, Lahoud's main political ally, Michel Murr, the powerful interior minister, says no matter how many votes and how much parliamentary support Hariri gets, he is not coming back.

After last week's voting, Murr was quoted by the newspaper As Safir as saying: "Even the support of 70 Parliament members will not be enough to get Hariri to the prime ministry slot, because everyone knows how a prime minister is manufactured in Lebanon. The basic element in this process is a consensus between Syria and the president about the new prime minister. It seems that many are not fully aware of the depth of the strategic relationship that exists between President Emile Lahoud and President Bashar Assad."

However, a Syrian official said yesterday that Damascus backed free parliamentary elections in Lebanon and was making no distinction between the candidates.

The situation is the first major problem for Assad, a 34-year-old eye doctor. He inherited leadership of Syria upon the death in June of his father, Hafez el Assad, who had run both countries.

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