A Western-leaning coalition of candidates held onto its parliamentary majority in Lebanon's Sunday polls, beating back a challenge by a Hezbollah-led bloc that some polls had indicated would come out on top.
Final election results released by the Lebanese government show the Hezbollah-led opposition didn't capture enough votes to win a majority.
Interior Minister Ziad Baroud read the returns from all 26 districts Monday. His count had the pro-Western bloc winning 68 seats of the 128-member legislature in Sunday's balloting and the Hezbollah-led alliance 57 seats. Three seats went to independents.
The outcome came as a surprise because some had predicted a victory here for Hezbollah, which receives significant funding from Iran and is allied with Syria. A Hezbollah-led victory would have been deeply troubling for Israel and U.S.-allied Arab neighbors, who are loath to see Tehran boost its regional influence.
The victory is being welcomed in Washington as a major boost for the Obama administration's strategies in the Middle East. U.S. officials have said in recent days that Lebanon traditionally serves as a bellwether for identifying wider trends across the region.
The push back of Hezbollah is seen as providing President Barack Obama more diplomatic space to pursue his high-profile Arab-Israeli peace initiative. It could also lend Mr. Obama more time to pursue his diplomatic outreach toward Tehran.
"Lebanon is taken as a window for the advances Iran has made in the region," said a senior U.S. official working on the Middle East. "If Hezbollah had achieved a majority, it would have added to our concerns significantly."
A number of factors could have impacted the vote, including higher-than-expected turnout. Mr. Obama's speech in Cairo last week may have made a difference. Hezbollah officials were quick to dismiss the speech, but many Muslims said it struck a chord for moderation.
Hezbollah headed an opposition bloc of Shiite and Christian allies that were expected to at least narrow the parliamentary majority of the Western-backed "March 14" movement led by Saad Hariri, the son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Some analysts and pollsters were predicting a margin of just one or two in the 128-seat body.
In an interview before the vote, Hussein Hajj Hassan, a Hezbollah MP from Baalbek, said the group would honor the outcome. "We will accept the decision" of the voters, he said.
Despite isolated reports of skirmishes between supporters, voting across the country went off smoothly. Turnout was well above 50%, according to the interior ministry, and fireworks lit up the skyline of the capital hours after polls closed.
The winner of the contest is expected to lead efforts to form Lebanon's next government. But the country's political system apportions seats and top posts by sect, significantly restricting either side in choosing ministries and other key posts.
Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies are looking to defeat Lebanon's ruling U.S.-backed coalition in a fiercely contested general election.
Washington has doled out significant aid to Lebanon in recent years. During a visit last month, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden warned that further aid, including military support, would depend on the composition and policies of the next government.
The Hezbollah-led "March 8" opposition holds 58 seats in the current parliament. Mr. Hariri's March 14 movement holds 70 seats.
In an interview Sunday, Mr. Hariri said if his side were to hold onto its majority, he would invite the opposition to join in a unity government. But he would also push to reverse the opposition's current ability to essentially veto government decisions -- a so-called "blocking minority" it was granted last year.
"We would invite them, but without a blocking minority," he said from his heavily fortified compound in central Beirut.
Voting was festive at a handful of polling stations in Beirut Sunday. In the Shiite neighborhood of Ghobeireh, volunteers dressed in Hezbollah yellow helped infirm voters out of an ambulance to cast votes at a local school.
In the mountainside Beirut suburb of Beit-Mery, the neighborhood's mostly Christian voters complained of waiting an hour or more to vote. Still, the mood was buoyant. "I've voted three times before, but never anything like this," said Nancy Abu Khalil, a 41-year-old schoolteacher. She said she was voting mostly for pro-West March 14 candidates.