In a closely contested race that saw the highest voter turnout in memory, the pro-Western coalition that has governed Lebanon for the past four years declared victory over the Hezbollah-led opposition.
The Lebanese broadcaster LBC reported early this morning that Saad Hariri's Future Party and its allies - called the March 14 bloc - had garnered 68 of the parliament's 128 seats. The opposition March 8 bloc that includes Hezbollah, another Shia party named Amal, and the largely Christian Free Patriotic Movement led by General Michel Aoun, had taken 56 seats.
The remaining seats had either been won by independents or the results were too close to call.
"Congratulations to you, congratulations to freedom, congratulations to democracy," Mr. Hariri told cheering supporters in Beirut. "This is a big day in the history of democratic Lebanon."
"There is no winner and loser in these elections, the only winner is democracy and Lebanon," he said, calling on all supporters to refrain from any provocation."
Mr. Hariri ran on a campaign vilifying the opposition as pawns of Iran, and suggesting that Western donors would reconsider their aid to Lebanon if the opposition was elected.
Shortly after the unofficial results were announced, cars carrying the flags of the majority alliance roamed Beirut's streets and people chanted "God bless Hariri and the ruling majority."
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a member of the March 14 bloc, pleaded with all March 14 supporters to practise self-restraint and "not to waste their victory in aimless festivities, or it will be worthless."
"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."
It was an exceptional election day, the fifth since the end of the country's 15-year civil war, and the first under rules adopted since Syrian forces left the country in 2005.
This is a country that cries out for co-operation. We are a country divided into two sides; we have to have dialogue. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt
With the outcome of as many as 100 of the 128 seats already determined thanks to Lebanon's consociational voting system, the race narrowed to just a handful of Christian districts. There the campaigns of Gen. Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement battled with those of Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces and Amin Gemayel's Phalange.
The formation of the country's next government will not likely be straightforward.
Most political leaders and many professional observers have called for some kind of national-unity government to avoid the tensions that have made the last four years so tumultuous in Lebanon.
"This is a country that cries out for co-operation," said Mr. Jumblatt in an interview this weekend. "We are a country divided into two sides; we have to have dialogue."
"A national unity cabinet is a must," he said.
In a report issued Friday, the International Crisis Group advised that "one-sided government is an unrealistic and inadvisable prospect" in Lebanon, and called on the parties to share power.
"From the outset, the June voting was viewed as a way for one side or the other to impose a more favourable balance of power and legitimize its preferred political outlook," said the ICG, "thus reviving rather than resolving the underlying conflicts."
Hezbollah, the Shia group that is at the centre of the opposition movement, had actually suggested that Mr. Hariri, its arch rival, become prime minister in the next government no matter which bloc comes out on top.
But Mr. Hariri, son of the late former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, poured cold water on any such plan. Alone among political leaders, he said his March 14 movement wishes to govern alone if it wins.
That would be a shame for the country, said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "If March 14 wins and March 8 is kept out, it could lead to a renewal of civil strife," he said.
Just a year ago, Hezbollah brought the country to its knees by its takeover of some of the capital's Sunni neighbourhoods, in protest at a government measure against Hezbollah's interests.
Throughout the day Sunday, voters formed long and orderly lineups outside polling stations, while supporters of the rival parties, clad in their different clothing and hats, encouraged the electors to vote for their leader's list.
Cars, with passengers holding party flags aloft drove up and down the main arteries all day long, honking their horns and playing their party's theme music.
The Hezbollah-led opposition is backed by Syria and Iran while the ruling majority is strongly supported by the United States and other Western countries as well as Saudi Arabia.
The March 14 majority won the last elections in 2005 after the assassination of Rafik Hariri.
The coalition has faced difficulties in ruling the country partly because of the strong opposition of Hezbollah and its allies.
Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who headed a team of election observers said he hoped all Lebanese and other countries would accept the result of the vote. Official results were expected later Monday.
"I don't have any concerns over the conduct of the elections," Mr. Carter said after visiting a polling station in Beirut.
"I have concerns over the acceptance of the results by all the major parties."Report Typo/Error