Beirut (AFP) – Hezbollah was poised to seal its dominance of Lebanon Monday with results for the country’s first general election this decade expected to confirm the Iran-backed party as the main winner.
The polls were also marked by a low turnout of 49.2 percent and the emergence of a civil society movement challenging Lebanon’s oligarchs was set to clinch a pair of seats in parliament.
The number of Hezbollah MPs in the 128-seat parliament may not increase but astute pre-electoral tactics have secured it enough allies to withstand political challenges on strategic issues.
It will also benefit from the fragmentation of its foes, among them Prime Minister Saad Hariri whose Sunni-dominated Future Movement could go down as the election’s biggest loser.
“Hariri’s loss will be the distinguishing mark of these elections, which will have consequences on the battle to form a new government,” the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar daily wrote Monday.
Hezbollah, which was created in the 1980s to fight against Israel and currently battles in Syria alongside regime forces, is listed as a terror organisation by the United States.
The powerful Shiite group is a key political player in Lebanon where it has allied with the Christian party of President Michel Aoun and has participated in Hariri’s government since December 2016.
Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk announced the turnout figure at a news conference shortly after midnight and appeared to blame it on the new electoral law agreed last year.
“This is a new law and voters were not familiar with it, nor were the heads of polling stations,” he said. “Voting operations were very slow.”
As provisional estimates trickled in, some candidates’ supporters started celebrating in the streets after a polling operation marred only by a few violations but no major incident.
– Parliament majority –
Lawmakers had extended their own mandate three times since 2009, ostensibly over security concerns linked to the war in neighbouring Syria and political divisions that led to long and crippling institutional crises.
A higher turnout had been expected after the long electoral hiatus but the new pre-printed ballots used Sunday appeared to confuse some voters.
Some voters also said that the sometimes absurd web of local alliances that saw some parties work together in one district and compete in others had put them off.
With an hour to go before polling stations closed, several senior political leaders appealed for an eleventh-hour rush to the ballot boxes but stopped short of extending polling hours.
If official results expected around noon confirm Hezbollah’s own estimates, the movement which Iran is essentially using for external operations will be better positioned to fend off any suggestion it should disarm.
The leading voice calling for the Tehran-funded movement to give up an arsenal that has now grown to outgun the national army’s has been Hariri, who pollsters now say looks less certain than before to keep his job.
Hezbollah members were accused over the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father Rafiq, a charismatic former prime minister.
The new contours of parliament could leave Aoun in the position of kingmaker.
“The biggest swing vote will be President Aoun’s group, which will move among the other blocs. Hezbollah will benefit from the lack of a broad coalition against it,” political analyst Imad Salamey said.
– ‘Made hope possible’ –
Lebanon has often been a scene where the rivalry between the region’s two heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia has played out, but their political clients in this election seemed content to maintain the status quo.
Nabih Berri, who heads the Shiite party Amal and was allied with Hezbollah, looks all but certain to keep the position of parliament speaker he has held since 1992.
Despite the disappointing turnout among an electorate that included around 800,000 people who were too young to vote in the previous general polls, the new electoral law that allows smaller parties to run helped a civil society list break into parliament.
Two women, television journalist Paula Yacoubian and author Joumana Haddad, were expected to enter parliament, where they have pledged to extend their feisty campaign against political dynasties they charge are incompetent, self-serving and corrupt.
Alexandre Salha, a 30-year volunteer with the “Kulluna Watani” civil society list, gathered with other supporters in a Beirut cafe after the vote Sunday and said the most important thing was to get a foot in the door.
“We look forward to 2022 and we really believe that change has started. If we get one or two today, hopefully we’ll have 10 in four years. We made hope possible,” he said.