BEIRUT - Lebanon's pro-Western coalition declared victory early Monday, as local television stations reported the faction had successfully fended off a serious challenge by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its allies to grab the majority in parliament.
Official results for Sunday's election were not expected until later Monday, but the winners were already celebrating by shooting in the air, setting off fireworks and driving around in honking motorcades.
The election was an early test of President Barack Obama's efforts to forge Middle East peace. A win by Hezbollah would have boosted the influence of its backers Iran and Syria and risked pushing one of the region's most volatile nations into international isolation and possibly into more conflict with Israel.
"I present this victory to Lebanon," Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said on television after stations projected his pro-Western coalition was winning. "It is an exceptional day for democracy in Lebanon."
OTV, the television station of one of Hezbollah's key Christian allies, former army chief Michel Aoun, conceded that the party's candidates who challenged pro-Western competitors in several Christian districts had been defeated, preventing a victory for the Hezbollah coalition. But Aoun was able to hang on to his representation in other districts.
Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, a leading private Christian TV station, projected the pro-Western coalition to win 68 seats in the next parliament, with 57 for Hezbollah and its allies and three for independents.
That would almost replicate the deadlock that existed in the outgoing parliament, in which the pro-Western bloc had 70 seats and an alliance of Hezbollah and other Shiite and Christian factions had 58.
The leader of the largest bloc in the pro-Western coalition, Saad Hariri, said early Monday in a televised speech that he extends his hand to the losing side "to work together and seriously for the sake of Lebanon." He urged supporters to celebrate without provoking opponents.
But despite the conciliatory tone, Lebanon was at risk of sliding again into a political crisis over formation of the next government similar to the one that buffeted the country for most of the last four years.
Hezbollah had veto power in Saniora's Cabinet for the last year, which it won after provoking the worst street clashes since the 1975-1990 civil war. The pro-Western coalition had vowed not to give Hezbollah and its allies a blocking minority in the new government if they won.
The battle in Christian districts was the decisive factor. Lebanese generally vote along sectarian and family loyalties, with seats for Sunnis and Shiites in the half-Christian, half-Muslim, 128-member parliament already locked up even before the voting started.
Christians in the pro-Western coalition warned that Hezbollah would bring the influence of Shiite Iran to Lebanon. The Maronite Catholic Church made a last-minute appeal, warning that Lebanon as a state and its Arab identity were threatened, a clear reference to Hezbollah and its Persian backer, Iran.
Sunnis were also driven to vote for the pro-Western coalition to get back at Shiite Hezbollah gunmen for seizing the streets a year ago in Beirut from pro-government supporters.
Some 3.2 million people out of a population of 4 million were eligible to vote, and the interior minister said after polls closed that the turnout nationwide was about 52.3 per cent, an increase over the 2005 figure of 45.8 per cent.
Saniora won his first parliamentary seat in the southern port city of Sidon, defeating a pro-Hezbollah Sunni incumbent, according to TV projections.
The race for the parliament is the first major event in the Middle East since Obama reached out to the Arab and Islamic worlds last week in his speech in Cairo in which he called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims." Obama challenged Muslims to confront violent extremism across the globe and urged Israel and the Palestinians along with Arab states to find common ground on which to forge peace.
Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, has been one of the staunchest opponents of U.S. policy in the Middle East and a sworn enemy of Israel. It fought the Jewish state in southern Lebanon in 2006 in a devastating war and has tried to smuggle weapons to the Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza through Egypt.
Obama's speech did not resonate in the election campaign. But warnings by the United States that it could reconsider aid depending on the election's outcome have sparked Hezbollah accusations of U.S. interference. The U.S. has given around $1 billion to Lebanon's pro-Western government since 2006.
In his Cairo speech, Obama said the United States "will welcome elected, peaceful governments, provided they govern with respect for all their people."
Former President Jimmy Carter, in Beirut to monitor the elections, expressed hope that the United States, Iran and other countries will recognize the results "and not try to interfere in the process."
Hezbollah's coalition includes the Shiite movement Amal and Aoun's Christian faction. Opposing it are the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim supporters of current majority leader Hariri, allied with several Christian and Druse factions.
Hezbollah tried to strike a moderate tone in the election campaign. The group only fielded 11 candidates and must work with its various political allies.
The group's Christian allies argue that involving Hezbollah more deeply in the political process - rather than shunning it - is the only way to bridge the country's sectarian divides.
Their opponents counter that the heavily armed Hezbollah would be driving Lebanon into the arms of Iran, which could use it as a front in the Islamic republic's confrontation with Israel.
In Israel, government officials were concerned about gains by Hezbollah.
Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said last week a victory by Hezbollah would be "very dangerous for the stability of the Middle East, and by that, the stability of the entire world."
The voting was largely peaceful, with complaints of long waits at polling stations from voters, many of whom had to travel across the country to cast their ballots. Army troops in armored personnel carriers and trucks took up positions on major highways, part of a 50,000-strong security force deployed for voting day.
President Michel Suleiman, among the early voters, cast his ballot in his hometown of Amchit on the coast north of Beirut. He set the political tone for the post-election period irrespective of who won, hoping for a national unity government, a prospect both sides have already raised.