BEIRUT, Lebanon - Lebanon's ruling pro-Western coalition appeared headed for a decisive political victory over its Iran-backed Hezbollah rivals early today in the Middle East nation's most fiercely contested parliamentary election in decades.
Fireworks echoed in Beirut as unofficial results indicated that Hezbollah and a Christian faction allied to it were dealt a surprising setback.
With soldiers looking on, jubilant supporters of the ruling coalition poured into the streets, waving flags, honking car horns, and chanting political slogans.
We "will return as the majority," Samir Geagea, head of the powerful Lebanese Forces party that is part of the pro-Western ruling coalition known as the March 14 Coalition, told LBC television.
Unofficial results showed March 14 politicians winning most of the close races. Local analysts projected they would secure at least 70 seats in the 128-seat parliament. The coalition held 70 seats in the outgoing parliament; Hezbollah and its allies had 58. The United States and Israel consider Hezbollah to be a terrorist group.
The outcome was a triumph for the coalition of Sunni Muslim, Druze, and Christian politicians and a victory as well for President Obama in his effort to bring stability to the Middle East.
In the final weeks of campaigning, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew to Beirut, where they offered tacit support for the pro-Western parties and warned that the United States might cut off financial support for Lebanon if its allies lost.
Last week, Obama flew to Cairo, where he delivered a well-received speech in which he called for a new beginning in relations between the United States and the Arab and Muslim world.
Obama said America would "welcome all elected, peaceful governments, provided they govern with respect for all their people."
The defeat for the Hezbollah coalition, known as March 8, allowed Obama to avoid an early challenge to his guiding philosophy.
"If March 8 had won, we would have been under total isolation from the whole world," said Elias Hadad, a 28-year-old university student.
March 14 supporters feared that a victory by Hezbollah and its Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun, would turn Lebanon into a second Gaza, an isolated enclave starved of resources and subject to Israeli military incursions.
Boutros Sfeir, spiritual leader of Lebanon's Christian Maronite community, warned Saturday night that the country was in danger, a statement interpreted as a blast against Hezbollah and Aoun.
Hezbollah leaders immediately signaled that they would not challenge the results.
"We consider that Lebanon is ruled by partnership and whatever the results of the elections are, we cannot change the standing delicate balances or repeat the experiences of the past, which led to catastrophes on Lebanon and showed the inability of one party monopolizing power," Hezbollah lawmaker Hassan Fadlallah told Reuters.
As results came in, political leaders worked to calm the electorate. The country's kaleidoscope of communities emerged from a 15-year civil war in the 1990s and nearly descended again into conflict amid a political crisis in May 2008.
The U.S., Europe, Israel, Iran, and the Arab world had kept a close eye on the elections.
A win by the Hezbollah-led alliance would have stoked tensions between Israel and Lebanon and exacerbated the rift between Iran and the Arab world.
But some analysts downplayed the election's importance. They said Hezbollah already had achieved its primary objectives of retaining its arsenal of weapons and wielding veto power over major government decisions in an agreement reached last year.
Aside from the complicated geopolitics and the country's lingering sectarian divisions, Lebanese also said they hoped their vote would bring to power leaders who would improve the economy and fight corruption.
"I hope Lebanon will change and think it will," said Nader Foani, a 29-year-old shoe salesman and supporter of the Shiite Amal party. "My phone bill is too expensive, prices are too high. The government should change that. That way, they don't have to give me money to vote."