Father and son

Saad Hariri has swept to victory in the Lebanese elections. But as Anil Bhoyrul reports, the challenges for the 35-year-old political novice are just starting.

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By  Anil Bhoyrul Published  June 26, 2005

Father and son|~|SUCCESS-200.jpg|~|SUCCESS: Saad Hariri’s political alliance has swept to power in Lebanon with a commanding majority in the new parliament.|~| Saad Hariri always preferred a life of relative anonymity. He was more than happy filling the role of a business tycoon, running the family’s hugely successful corporate empire. And even a week ago, the 35-year-old was still insisting he probably wouldn’t take the role of prime minister should his party win the Lebanese elections. But, of course, politics changes by the minute. And Saad Hariri’s life changed the very minute his father Rafik, the former Lebanese prime minister, was murdered on February 14 this year. Suddenly, he was propelled into the spotlight as his father’s successor. Final results in Lebanon’s parliamentary election last week gave a clear victory to anti-Syrian candidates led by Hariri. In the fourth and final phase of the month-long election, the opposition alliance won all the remaining 28 seats in northern Lebanon, bringing its total to 72 in the 128-member parliament. “The north has decided the character of the new parliament and given the absolute majority to the opposition,” Hariri said at a news conference. The result makes Hariri, who entered politics as a result of his father’s death, an obvious candidate for prime minister, although he has so far refused to say whether he wants the job. Following the withdrawal of Syrian forces under international pressure in April, the elections were the first since the 1975-90 civil war to be free of extensive meddling from Damascus. Despite allegations of vote-buying and intimidation in some areas, an EU monitoring team said the elections “were well-managed and took place in a generally peaceful manner within the framework for elections”. Many voters, however, were disappointed by the way rival factions struck pacts which guaranteed seats for themselves and made the results a foregone conclusion in large parts of the country. Last Sunday’s final stage was the more competitive, pitting the anti-Syrian list against an unlikely alliance of pro-Syrian candidates and supporters of the former general Michel Aoun, a Maronite who had previously been a vehement critic of Damascus. Aoun, whose candidates won 21 seats a week ago in the Christian heartland of Mount Lebanon, accused Hariri’s alliance of buying votes and playing on sectarian differences to secure victory and ruled out any possibility of teaming up with him in parliament. “We will be in the opposition. We can’t be with a majority that reach-ed [parliament] through corruption,” Aoun said. A further 54 seats in the new parliament are held by a pro-Syrian Shia alliance of Amal and Hezbollah. This leaves Hariri’s alliance short of the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution and oust the Syrian-backed president, Emile Lahoud, who controls key parts of the security services. Last autumn, under Syrian pressure, the previous parliament gave Lahoud an extra two years in office. There are also doubts about how long the alliances forged in the run-up to the election will last once parliament convenes. So how is Hariri likely to fair? He admits it was not a job he wanted at first. “Then we decided that what my father wanted to achieve had not been achieved,” he said in an interview with Newsweek magazine earlier this month. Now his Future Current movement, the main anti-Syrian alliance, has decisively won the election — which puts him in a position to take up the job of prime minister. He told Newsweek that if elected he wanted to end corruption and boost the economy, as well as free Lebanon from the influence of Syria. “We have to understand that we come out of 30 years of not making decisions by ourselves, of having a country telling us what to do,” he said. But he acknowledges he has an uphill task as a newcomer to politics. “I think I am merely a symbol for now,” he later added. “I need to work hard in the coming four years to ... fill a little bit my father’s shoes.” Hariri, married with two young children, is a business graduate from Georgetown University in Washington. He took over the family business at just 26 and headed his father’s Saudi-based construction firm, Saudi Oger — one of the Middle East’s largest firms with a turnover of more than US$2 billion and a 35,000-strong workforce. He also managed the Hariri empire’s other interests, which include banking, real estate and media. His own real estate firm is said to be worth around $145m. Lebanon’s Daily Star says Saad Hariri’s inexperience “in walking the crooked paths of the Lebanese political environment” may work to his advantage. “Because of his lack of exposure to the corrupt reality of the Lebanese state, he has the means to resist negative aspects of governance that are so prevalent here,” the newspaper wrote in early May. That appears not to be the popular view, given the election results. And many observers believe that it is Hariri's economic agenda that will dictate his eventual success as a politician. Rahim Ahmed, who has lived in the city for 15 years, says: “Most of my friends left Beirut many years ago, not because of the security situation but because of the economy. There are not enough jobs to go around in this city, and the ones that do exist do not pay well enough." He adds: “But I choose to stay in the country and I also voted for Hariri. I know his father was successful as a businessman and I know that Saad was also a success. The hope for many of us is that he can bring that success to the country. Of course we want peace, but just as badly we need jobs." The next few months will indicate how far down the road of success Hariri goes. ||**||

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