Lebanon votes in crucial parliament election

Silvan Shalom: A win by Iranian-backed Hizbullah would be "very dangerous for Middle East stability."

lebanese elections 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
lebanese elections 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Lebanese streamed to their hometowns on Sunday Sunday to vote in a crucial election that could unseat a pro-Western government and install one dominated by Iranian-backed Hizbullah. The race for the 128-member parliament will have repercussions beyond this tiny Arab country's borders. A win for the alliance headed by Hizbullah, could bring international isolation and possibly a new conflict with Israel. It could also set back US Mideast policy and boost the influence of Hizbullah's backers, Syria and Iran. "I voted for reform and change," said Laure Khoury, a 32-year-old school teacher, after voting in the district of Byblos north of Beirut for the Hizbullah alliance. "We tried the others for four years and we got nothing but promises and corruption. Enough is enough," she said. Lebanon has long been a main front in what many see as a power struggle between two main camps in the Mideast - the US and its moderate Arab allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt on one side, and Iran and Syria and terror groups such as Hizbullah and the Palestinian Hamas on the other. The vote is the latest chapter in four tumultuous years that began with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 in a car bombing. The pro-Western factions swept into power in elections the same year on a sympathy vote. But the government has been virtually paralyzed since by a power struggle with Hizbullah. Hizbullah's coalition includes the Shiite movement Amal and a major Christian faction led by former army chief Michel Aoun. Opposing it are the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim supporters of current majority leader Saad Hariri - Rafik Hariri's son - allied with several Christian and Druse factions. Going into the election, the race for a majority appears too close to call. In the outgoing parliament, the pro-Western bloc had 70 seats and Hizbullah's alliance had 58. Hizbullah's opponents say if the heavily armed group wins, it would drive Lebanon into the arms of Iran, which could use it as a front in the Islamic republic's confrontation with Israel. Neighboring Israel has raised the alarm. Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom called a win by Hizbullah, which fought the Jewish state in a 2006 war, "very dangerous for the stability of the Middle East, and by that the stability of the entire world." But Hizbullah's Christian allies argue that a victory by their coalition will not have such a dramatic impact and will ensure peace in a nation divided by sectarian tensions. They say that involving Hizbullah more deeply in the political process - rather than shunning it - is the only way to bridge the sectarian divides. There are some 3.2 million eligible voters out of a population of 4 million, and the interior minister said after polls closed that the turnout nationwide was about 52.3 percent, an increase over the 2005 figure of 45.8 percent. Early unofficial returns were expected late Sunday and official results as early as Monday afternoon. The voting was largely peaceful, with complaints of long waits at polling stations from voters, many of whom had to travel across the country to cast their ballots. Army troops in armored personnel carriers and trucks took up positions on major highways, part of a 50,000-strong security force deployed for voting day. President Michel Suleiman, among the early voters, cast his ballot in his hometown of Amchit on the coast north of Beirut. He set the political tone for the post-election period irrespective of who wins, hoping for a national unity government, a prospect both sides have already raised. "Democracy is a blessing that distinguishes Lebanon in the Middle East, and we must preserve it," he told reporters. Scores of foreign observers, including former President Jimmy Carter, were monitoring the vote. Speaking at a polling station in Beirut's Christian sector of Ashrafieh, Carter expressed hope the US, Iran and other countries "will accept the results of the election and not try to interfere in the process."