Lebanon braces for electoral showdown

Lebanese voters go to the polls on Sunday for a parliamentary election showdown between the ruling Western-backed coalition and factions led by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

The vote is being held under tight security with 50,000 soldiers and police deployed across the country to prevent violence between the two camps.

More than 200 international observers from the European Union, the Carter Centre and other institutions will oversee the election.

Sunday’s vote is being held from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm (0400 GMT to 1600 GMT), with 3.2 million people eligible to cast their ballot.

At stake is whether the small Mediterranean country continues to enjoy widespread support from the West and Saudi Arabia or whether it tilts more towards Iran if Hezbollah and its allies win.

The United States, which considers the Shiite Hezbollah to be a terrorist organisation, has already said that its continued aid to Lebanon hinges on which side emerges victorious.

Analysts and pollsters predict a tight race for the 128-seat parliament with the winner clinching victory by just a few seats.

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

“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.

Both the current majority and the opposition have poured millions into the campaign, flying in thousands of their constituents from overseas amid expectations that their ballots could be a deciding factor in a tight race.

Campaigning in the run-up 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.”

Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said on Saturday he was hopeful of a smooth process and warned that voter fraud would not be tolerated after dozens of fake identity cards were seized in several regions.

“We will be diligent at the polling stations and anyone involved in fraud risks prison,” he said.

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 assassination of former prime minister 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 — which were 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 2006 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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