, BEIRUT, Jun 9 – A pro-Western bloc inflicted a surprise defeat on Hezbollah and its allies at the ballot box in Lebanon, final results showed, as the winners faced a battle to keep the nation together.
The coalition headed by Saad Hariri, son of slain ex-premier Rafiq, landed 71 seats in the 128-member parliament against 57 for Hezbollah and its Shiite and Christian allies, Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said.
"This is a big day in the history of democratic Lebanon," a triumphant Hariri, now being tipped by some as a possible premier, told his supporters after Sunday’s vote.
The Obama administration hailed a pro-Western coalition’s election win in Lebanon as a force for stability, but played down any short-term prospects for broader Arab-Israeli peace.
President Barack Obama saw Sunday’s polls as the "strongest indications yet of the Lebanese desire for security and prosperity," following the defeat of the pro-Iranian and anti-Israeli Hezbollah movement.
"It is our sincere hope that the next government will continue along the path towards building a sovereign, independent and stable Lebanon," Obama said in a statement.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged the defeat in what he called "a sporting spirit," in a televised address later on Monday.
Appearing graceful in defeat, he also congratulated his political rivals.
Nasrallah declined to discuss the formation of a new unity government, saying it "needs consultations with all the members of the opposition."
A 100-strong EU observer mission said the vote was "contested in a polarised but generally peaceful environment within an improved legal framework which nevertheless needs further reform."
From Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana called for "the formation of a coalition government as soon as possible."
And UN chief Ban Ki-moon hoped that "the process of government formation will commence expeditiously and that it will take place in a calm and secure environment."
However, analysts and newspapers questioned whether the rival factions would be able to form a unity government and ensure Lebanon is not plunged into a renewed cycle of instability and violence.
"Lebanon has entered a new phase today," said Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Middle East Carnegie Centre. "The question is, once the