Battle lines drawn for Lebanon vote

Lebanon’s political parties wrapped up their campaigns on Friday ahead of a high-stakes general election pitting pro-Western factions against an alliance led by Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

A series of rallies were staged around the country ahead of the midnight deadline to stop campaigning, with both sides warning voters that their ballots on Sunday will determine Lebanon’s future course.

Thousands of expatriates flocked home, many flown in by political parties amid expectations that in a tight race their ballots may be decisive.

Security was tight, with 50,000 soldiers and police deploying country-wide from Friday to ward off any violence.

“I am confident everything will proceed smoothly,” Interior Minister Ziad Baroud told AFP.

Campaigning has been mostly free of the sectarian unrest that has plagued Lebanon for years, but there are fears of what could happen once the results are known.

“Given the animosity between the two sides, thank God it has been quiet overall,” a high-ranking security official said. “But we are bracing for after the vote because one side is bound to be unhappy.”

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, leading a team of monitors, told journalists the vote should be made “honestly and peacefully.”

“One thing I hope to see is for everyone to accept the results of the people’s will,” he said.

The vote will help determine whether the tiny Mediterranean country bordered by Syria and Israel continues to look West if the current Sunni-led majority wins or tilts towards Iran if Hezbollah and its allies win.

Pollsters predict a very tight race for the 128-seat parliament with the winner clinching victory by just two or three seats.

“Whatever majority might be gained by either side in Lebanon’s June 7 elections will be very slim,” said Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre.

“The country will remain almost evenly divided between the two camps, with major communities that make up the Lebanese polity lined up on either side of the political divide.”

A handful of key battleground constituencies are likely to be crucial in determining the outcome with the Christian vote, which is divided between the two camps, set to tip the scale.

“The fight will be fierce, but all polls . . . show the opposition winning by a slight margin,” said Abdo Saad, head of the Beirut Centre for Research and Information.

“Overall, our statistics show an opposition win by two or three seats.”

Hezbollah, which fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006, remains blacklisted as a terrorist group by the United States.

And Washington has said it will review its aid to Lebanon in the light of the outcome.

Salem said one likely result was a “hung parliament, with both camps holding large minorities and independents close to the president holding the balance.”

“This would very likely lead to a broad coalition government . . . with neither camp having a majority and both sides having veto power,” he added.

Lebanon’s complex power-sharing system divides the 128 seats in parliament equally between Christians and Muslims.

Top government posts are also allocated along confessional lines. The president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim.

The current Sunni-led majority in parliament swept to power in 2005 amid a wave of popular discontent following the murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri in a massive car bombing in Beirut.

The bombing forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence amid accusations — strongly denied by Damascus — of Syrian involvement.

It also marked the beginning of a turbulent period during which Hezbollah was thrust to the political forefront by its 34-day war with Israel in which 1,200 people died in Lebanon, most of them civilians.

Political unrest last year also saw a six-month vacancy in the presidency and sectarian clashes that killed more than 100 people after Hezbollah staged a spectacular takeover of mainly Sunni parts of Beirut.


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