UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY) – Lebanon’s Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah and its allies expect to emerge stronger than Sunday’s parliamentary election, a result that would confirm Iran’s rise in the region from Tehran to Beirut.
Saad Hariri, the Western-backed Lebanese prime minister and Sunni leader in Lebanon, is struggling to limit the losses he is expected to win in the first parliamentary elections in nine years. However, it is expected to form the next government.
The victory of Hezbollah, backed by Iran and its allies, will highlight the balance of power already in favor of the heavily armed Shiite group and the role of Saudi Arabia in a country where it has once had considerable influence.
Hezbollah, branded by the United States as a terrorist group, is a bitter enemy of Israel, which is deeply concerned about Iran’s growing influence in the region, including in Syria, where Hezbollah has been fighting since 2012.
The Lebanese elections precede the May 12 Iraqi elections and will also highlight Iran’s influence as it will become one of three pro-Tehran Shi’ite leaders.
In 2009, an anti-Hezbollah coalition led by Hariri and backed by Saudi Arabia won a majority in parliament. But since March 14 forces have disintegrated and Saudi Arabia has shifted its focus to confronting Iran elsewhere.
The 128-seat parliament is being voted for in a new complex law based on relativity that has reshaped the constituencies and replaced the old law in which the result is decided by a simple majority. Seats in parliament are divided among sectarian groups according to the power-sharing system.
Although Hariri is expected to lose some of his 33 seats in 2009, analysts believe he will emerge in the largest Sunni bloc. But his status as the dominant Sunni in Lebanon faces an unprecedented challenge in the face of the candidacy of Sunni Arab allies of Hezbollah and wealthy businessmen as independents.
West Beirut is one of the main Sunni areas of competition, an old stronghold of Hariri. In a speech on Thursday, Hariri said the lists, each made up of eight candidates and competing with the Future Movement there, amounted to a Hizballah plot.
Heavy Sunni rivalry led to street violence in west Beirut on Thursday, prompting the army to deploy.
Hezbollah is also campaigning fiercely, reflecting skepticism about the results of the new law, which offers safe seats once a day. Hizbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly urged his supporters to participate strongly in the voting process.
– US military aid –
Hezbollah’s victory would be a major concern for Western countries, particularly the United States, which provides the Lebanese army with weapons and training.
Analysts expect Hezbollah and its allies, whose weapons are a source of strength for Lebanon, to win more than half the seats. But they do not expect to have a two-thirds majority that will allow them to pass important decisions such as amending the constitution.
Hariri inherited his political role after the assassination of his father Rafik in 2005. A UN-backed tribunal has accused five members of Hezbollah of killing him. But Hezbollah, which is part of Hariri’s government, denies any role.
Hariri’s political network in Lebanon has been shaken over the past few years by the collapse of his Saudi Oger contracting company, which has spent billions of dollars on the Hariri family and has been seen as a means of supporting Saudi Arabia’s Future Movement.
Saudi-Lebanese relations reached their lowest level in November after Hariri briefly stayed in Riyadh and announced his resignation from the post of prime minister.
The crisis was resolved after a French intervention. On his return to Beirut, Hariri retracted his resignation. Hariri denies he was forced to resign and Saudi Arabia has denied placing him under house arrest.
Saudi Arabia has reopened a $ 1 billion credit line to Lebanon but there is no sign of financial support for Hariri.
Hariri’s supporters say it is in Iran’s interest.
Polling stations open at 0700 (0400 GMT) on Sunday and close at 7 pm (1600 GMT).
The new parliament is expected to re-elect Nabih Berri, a veteran Shi’ite politician and ally of Hezbollah, as speaker of parliament. President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian allied to Hezbollah, must nominate a Sunni who has received the most support from deputies for prime minister.
It is expected that some parties, including the Free Patriotic Movement founded by Aoun and the Shiite Amal movement led by Berri and the Progressive Socialist Party led by Druze Walid Jumblatt, Hariri will be prime minister.
Hariri said the next government should be set up quickly to press ahead with economic reforms demanded by donor countries and institutions to release the billions of dollars they pledged in April to support the faltering economy.
Lebanon must urgently address one of the world’s highest levels of public debt, which is more than 150 percent of GDP.