nasrallah 248 88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
With quiet campaigning and moderate talk, Hizbullah is building its strength for Lebanon's June 7 parliamentary elections - and the terrorist Shi'ite Muslim group and its allies stand a good chance of winning.
That could mean a stunning shake-up for one of the Middle East's most volatile countries, replacing a pro-US government with a coalition dominated from behind the scenes by Hizbullah, the proxy of Iran and Syria in Lebanon.
The US ambassador in Beirut has already expressed concern, and Hizbullah's opponents warn the consequence may be the West isolating Lebanon and Washington reducing its millions in aid.
But Hizbullah, whose name means "Party of God," has taken the strategy of a low-key election campaign with a moderate message, aiming to show that a victory by its coalition should not scare anyone.
Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has even said that if the coalition wins, it would invite its opponents to join in a national unity government to ensure stability. His deputy, Sheikh Naim Kassem, says the West will have to accept the election results.
Kassem said foreign diplomats are already approaching Hizbullah, "some wanting to open a new page." Britain has said it is willing to talk to Hizbullah's "political wing" and a Hizbullah member of the current parliament recently traveled to London.
The moderate tone is in part because Hizbullah does not want to suffer the same fate as Hamas, which won legislative elections in 2006 but was boycotted by the West and crippled by an Israeli-led closure of the Gaza Strip.
"There are pitfalls for winning or losing," said Hizbullah expert Amal Saad-Ghorayeb. "They (Hizbullah) see the dangers of winning."
Nevertheless, a Hizbullah win would almost certainly mean changes that would dismay the West and Israel. It would mean less pressure from Lebanon's government to rein in Hizbullah's arsenal of rockets pointed at the Jewish state and more backing for efforts to change Lebanon's electoral system to solidify Shi'ite power further.
Israel's worry is "whether Iran and Syria will succeed in adding Lebanon to their bloc," said Israeli political analyst Barry Rubin. "It would be a huge defeat for the West."
So far, Hizbullah has campaigned quietly, with none of its trademark fiery anti-Israel rallies. Its 11 candidates have been holding town hall meetings in Shi'ite villages, focusing on promises to root out corruption and improve government performance, and stressing government by consensus.
By contrast, leaders from the US-backed majority have held three splashy rallies since February before several thousand people in a Beirut hall, with balloons, confetti and speakers projected on a giant screen.
Nasrallah says Hizbullah knows that trying to dominate Lebanon's politics would destabilize the country, which in the past four years nearly tumbled into a repeat of the 1975-1990 civil war as the pro-Syrian and pro-US camps struggled for the upper hand.
"In such a sectarian system, it is in the interest of Lebanon and its stability that there is understanding and partnership among Lebanese in running their country's affairs," he said in a recent televised speech.
Under Lebanon's complex political system, no group can rule alone. The 128-member legislature must be half Christian and half-Muslim, with the Christians divided among Orthodox and Catholic parties and Muslims among Shi'ite, Sunni, Druse and Alawite sects. Moreover, in any government, the prime minister must be a Sunni, so Hizbullah would need allies from that sect.
Lebanon's population of 4 million is roughly divided in thirds between Christians, Sunnis and Shi'ites, with smaller sects mixed in. The exact numbers are unknown because a census would be too politically risky - the last one was held in 1932.
The pro-US bloc - largely Sunnis with Christian allies - holds 70 seats in the 128-member parliament, so a handful of races could tip the balance.
Hizbullah's 11 candidates will likely win easily given the movement's overwhelming support among Shi'ites. Its coalition of pro-Syrian, Shi'ite and several Christian parties now has 58 seats in parliament. About 30 seats - from both camps - are reported to be toss-ups. But some political analysts believe Hizbullah's coalition has a strong chance of winning a majority because smaller electoral districts created since the 2005 election favor its candidates. There are no reliable independent polls in Lebanon.
The leader of the pro-US bloc, Sunni billionaire Saad Hariri, has said a Hizbullah win would "put Lebanon into very difficult times," threatening its economic growth.
In an interview with Beirut's Naharnet news Website, US Ambassador Michele Sison warned that American relations with Lebanon - and future US aid - "will be evaluated in the context of the new government's policies and statements." Since 2006, the United States has committed over a billion dollars to Lebanon, including $410 million to the country's security forces.
A victory by the pro-Syrian coalition would likely see Hizbullah pushing to fulfill its campaign promise to eliminate the sectarian distribution of parliament seats, which would boost the power of the growing Shi'ite population. Hizbullah would also see a win as a mandate for its opposition to US Middle East policies and its strong anti-Israeli line.