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Hezbollah gains, Hariri weakened

Free Patriotic Movement supporters celebrate the party’s results in the parliamentary elections, early on May 7, in the Lebanese coastal town of Batroun. Less than half of Lebanon’s electorate voted in Sunday’s general elections, according to a provisional turnout figure of 49.2 percent announced by Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk. (AFP)

BEIRUT, May 7, (Agencies): Hezbollah and its political allies won just over half the seats in Lebanon’s parliamentary election, unofficial results showed, boosting an Iranian-backed movement fiercely opposed to Israel and underlining Tehran’s growing regional clout.

Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, called it a “political and moral victory” for the “resistance”, as the group refers to itself and allies. Branded a terrorist group by the United States, the heavily armed Shi’ite Hezbollah has grown in strength since joining the war in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad in 2012.

The gains for parties and politicians who support Hezbollah’s possession of weapons risk complicating Western policy in Lebanon, which is banking on foreign aid and loans to revive its stagnant economy and receives US military support.

An Israeli minister said the outcome, which has yet to be confirmed by official results, showed the Lebanese state was indistinguishable from Hezbollah, signaling the risk of Israel hitting Lebanon’s government in a future war.

In Kuwait, His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah on Monday sent a couple of congratulatory cables to the president and prime minister of Lebanon on the recent parliamentary elections.

In the cables, His Highness the Amir commended the elevated organizing level of the electoral process, in which the voters cast their ballots in a smooth manner. His Highness the Amir wished the Lebanese leaders good health and more development and growth of relations between both sisterly countries.

Two more congratulatory cables of the same sentiments were sent to the Lebanese leaders by His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and His Highness the Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah. Western-backed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri lost over a third of his seats.

He blamed a complex new voting law and gaps in his party’s performance. But with 21 MPs, down from 33 in the last parliament, he emerged as the Sunni Muslim leader with the biggest bloc in the 128-seat house, making him the frontrunner to form the next government.

Initial indications showed the staunchly anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, emerging as a big winner, nearly doubling its lawmakers to at least 15 from eight. Lebanon’s prime minister must be a Sunni under its sectarian powersharing system. The new government, like the outgoing one, is expected to include all the main parties. Talks over cabinet posts are expected to take time. “Hariri is going to be further weakened in any kind of government going forward,” Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute said. “His ability to substantially tame or restrain Hezbollah … in Lebanon is going to be very limited.” “It will lead to more criticism of US military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces” in Washington, he added.

Hezbollah, along with allied groups and individuals, secured at least 67 seats, according to a Reuters calculation based on preliminary results for nearly all the seats obtained from politicians and campaigns and reported in Lebanese media. Seats in the Lebanese parliament are divided according to a strict sectarian quota.

The number of Hezbollah lawmakers was the same or little changed at around 13, but candidates supported by the group or allied to it made significant gains. Hezbollah-backed Sunnis did well in Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon, strongholds of Hariri’s Future Movement, the preliminary results showed.

The pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar newspaper declared the election a “slap” for Hariri on its front page. Hezbollah-backed winners include Jamil al-Sayyed, a retired Shi’ite general and former Lebanese intelligence chief who is a close friend of Syria’s Assad. Sayyed was one of the most powerful men in Lebanon in the 15 years of Syrian domination that followed the 1975-90 civil war.

At least five other figures who held office then returned to parliament for the first time since Syrian forces quit Lebanon after the 2005 assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, Saad’s father.

Faisal Karami, son of the late pro Syrian prime minister Omar Karami, won a seat for the first time. Iranian media appeared to gloat at Hariri’s setback.

The hardline Tasnim news agency ran a report headlined: “Lebanese election result puts an end to Hariri’s monopoly among Sunnis.” Hezbollah’s big allies include the Shi’ite Amal Movement led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally since 2006 who has said its arsenal is needed to defend Lebanon. While Hezbollah and its allies do not always see eye to eye, their support for its arsenal is vital to the group in Lebanon, where its weapons have been a major point of friction for years.

Hezbollah lost ground in Baalbek- Hermel constituency, one of its strongholds. Two of 10 seats there were won by its foes, one by the Lebanese Forces and the other by Future. It also failed to take a Shi’ite seat in the coastal town of Byblos. Hezbollah and its allies are not on course to win the two-thirds majority that would be required to pass big decisions such as changing the constitution.

Turnout was 49.2 percent, down from 54 percent the last time legislative elections were held nine years ago. Independent candidates running against the political establishment may have won a seat in Beirut.

An anti-Hezbollah coalition led by Hariri and backed by Saudi Arabia won a majority in parliament in 2009. But that “March 14” alliance disintegrated and Riyadh has switched its attention to confronting Iran in other parts of the region, notably Yemen. Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces leader, said the results showed there was still a “popular ground” that backs “March 14” and would “give us strength … to fix the path much more than we were able to in past years”.

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