BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Candidates loyal to Lebanon’s assassinated former premier have posted giant campaign billboards bearing his picture, hoping a wave of sympathy will bring them to power in Lebanon’s first elections in decades that are free from Syrian domination.

Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s son and political successor will likely be the main benefactor of the vote in four-stage elections beginning Sunday. Hariri’s killing, which sparked mass protests that ultimately forced Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, appears to be the driving force in the vote.

But surprisingly, the legacy of Syria’s 29-year military and political control of its smaller neighbor has not shaped up to be a major campaign issue. Syrian troops are gone, and it seems they were quickly forgotten.

Groups united in the vocal opposition to Syrian control after Hariri’s killing in February are widely expected to win a majority in the next Parliament. Syria was accused by the opposition of having a hand in the assassination, a charge Damascus has denied.

Lebanon’s long-awaited legislative elections – which begin Sunday in Beirut and in other regions over the following three Sundays – are seen as a chance to seal the end of Syria’s political dominance after the last of its forces left in April.

Interior Minister Hassan Sabei promised “free and fair elections with complete neutrality by the state.”

Hariri loyalists are determined to carry out his agenda of opposing extremism and rebuilding the country. They also want to ensure a thorough investigation of his killing.

The former prime minister’s son, 35-year-old Saad Hariri, is leading a 19-member list of candidates named after his father in Beirut’s three districts.

In urging Beirut’s more than 400,000 eligible voters to turn out to show loyalty to his father, Saad Hariri billed the Beirut election as “the day of safeguarding Rafik Hariri’s course (and) Rafik Hariri’s blood.”

Nine of his candidates have won uncontested seats and 10 others, including Saad Hariri, are competing for the remaining 10 seats in the capital. The competition is so lopsided that people are being urged to vote anyway if only to show Hariri’s numerical dominance.

The election will be the first without foreign forces since the pre-civil war Parliament was elected in 1972, three years before the 15-year conflict erupted.

Lebanon’s democratic tradition, although manipulated during civil war and 29 years of Syrian control, dates back to the Arab country’s independence from France in 1943 and sets the country apart from the rest of the mostly autocratic Arab world.

But unlike Western democracies, the issues in Lebanon have focused on the interests of the 18 diverse Muslim and Christian sects and how much each can carve for its own in attempts to protect its identity. Loyalties are to families, clans, the sect and – less often – to a political party.

Although the country is shackled by high debt, the economy barely swings the vote.

Outside Beirut, there is a wider array of candidates and alliances competing for the 128 legislative seats that are split equally between Muslims and Christians.

Even within the opposition, there are sharp differences as the factions forge electoral alliances.

Christian leader Michel Aoun split with Hariri and Druse leader Walid Jumblatt. Aoun, a staunch anti-Syrian who returned from 14 years’ exile May 7, is joining pro-Syrians in some districts. The Hariri-Jumblatt ticket is also allied in Beirut with Hezbollah, the pro-Syrian Shiite Muslim militant guerrilla group.

Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, is expected to be the leading politician in the Sunni community nationwide. Jumblatt is expected to dominate his small Druse sect. Christians are splintered into several factions.

Hezbollah and the pro-Syrian Amal, Shiite rivals who have joined hands, expect to scoop the seats in their strongholds in southern and eastern Lebanon.

More than 100 foreign observers from the European Union and the United Nations will be watching the vote for irregularities, the first time Lebanon has permitted foreign scrutiny.

Sen. Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat, arrived Saturday to watch the balloting. A delegation of four U.S. officials, including Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, visited Beirut on Saturday and met with Prime Minister Najib Mikati before leaving the country. McCain reiterated U.S. support for free elections “without foreign interference.”

AP-ES-05-28-05 1844EDT

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