FEATURE-Slain leaders' heirs vie for Lebanon votes

Wed May 27, 2009 6:39am EDT

Related Topics

* Offspring of slain Christian leaders campaign for votes

* Christian vote seen decisive for outcome

* Issue of Hezbollah weapons at heart of campaign



By Tom Perry

BEIRUT, May 27 (Reuters) - The memory of assassinated Lebanese leaders lives on in the symbols and slogans of their heirs who are battling for Christian votes crucial to deciding the outcome of a parliamentary election.

At 26 and 27, Nayla Tueni and Nadim Gemayel are young, even by the standards of Lebanon's dynastic politics. Running as allies in the June 7 election, both evoke the memories of fathers killed for their views. Gemayel manages his campaign from offices decorated with images of his father, President-elect Bashir Gemayel, who was blown up in 1982. Tueni's manifesto has 48 articles, intended to reflect the age of her father Gebran when he was assassinated in 2005. Both died opponents of Syria's influence in Lebanon.

Now, their offspring aim to galvanise Christian support for a Western-backed coalition of factions which still see the neighbouring state and its Lebanese allies as a threat.

"I believe Gebran Tueni represents an ideology. He had ideas, plans and dreams for this country," said Tueni, whose father helped lead a campaign against Syrian influence in Lebanon after the 2005 killing of statesman Rafik al-Hariri.

"I want to be one of the people who will implement this dream," she said.

How the Christian community votes will largely decide whether the anti-Syrian "March 14" alliance retains its majority or loses it to a rival Damascus-backed coalition that includes the Free Patriotic Movement of Christian leader Michel Aoun.

Sunni and Shi'ite support is split between the camps: March 14 leader Saad al-Hariri, Rafik al-Hariri's son and political heir, is seen retaining most of the seats reserved for Sunnis according to a power-sharing system that parcels out official posts among Lebanon's array of religious communities.

Pro-Syrian groups Hezbollah and Amal are expected to dominate Shi'ite representation once again.

That focuses the competition on the once dominant Christian community, which is allocated half of parliament's 128 seats.



FRACTURED CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

The race for five Christian seats in the Beirut district of Ashrafiyeh, a labyrinth of narrow streets dotted with churches, typifies the contest. Tueni and Gemayel, both running in the constituency, face rival candidates fielded by Aoun.

A former army commander who fought Syrian forces during the 1975-90 civil war, Aoun now stands accused of betraying the cause he once led by forging an alliance with Hezbollah, a heavily armed group allied to both Damascus and Tehran. As an exile in France, Aoun lobbied for an end to Syrian control of Lebanon. He returned in 2005 after Damascus, facing international pressure over the Hariri killing, had withdrawn its troops from the country.

The 74-year old has brushed off the attacks of rivals jostling for influence in the fractured Christian community, justifying his rapprochement with Damascus by arguing that the neighbouring state is now out of Lebanon.

Aoun's opponents have taken aim at his alliance with Hezbollah in an election campaign that seldom raises issues such as the economy, job creation or education. Hezbollah's guerrilla army, which the group says is vital to defending Lebanon from Israel, is one of the most divisive issues in the country.

"We see him allied with Hezbollah without any bounds," said Gemayel, whose 28-year-old cousin Sami is also running under the banner of the Phalange Party founded by their grandfather.



FOLLOWING "BASHIR'S PATH"

"This is something we reject because the issue for which Hezbollah is working is not Lebanese," he said.

Set up by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah was born the year Gemayel's father died. Bashir Gemayel is still notorious in Lebanon because of the wartime alliance he made with Israel. But he remains a powerful symbol for followers who remember him as defender of Christians during the conflict.

Pledging to "remain on Bashir's path", Gemayel calls for good ties with all states that neighbour Lebanon, a country bordered only by Syria and Israel. Gemayel also echoes his allies demand for a state monopoly on weapons. Aoun proposes a formal role for "resistance" in defending Lebanon.

Aoun and his allies have fired back at their opponents, accusing them of exploiting the memory of the dead for political gain and being mere subordinates of Hariri, a Saudi-backed billionaire.

Deputy Prime Minister and Aoun ally Issam Abu Jamra, 72, also took aim at what he saw as the inexperience of Tueni and Gemayel. Abu Jamra, who joined the army with Aoun in the 1950s, is running against the pair in Ashrafiyeh

"It's premature ambition," he said.

For more on the Lebanese election, click [ID:nL0281797]




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