A rival sits out Lebanon's election. Now Hezbollah could fill the void

Pictures of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in Taalabaya, Lebanon, ahead of a May 15 parliamentary election. PHOTO: REUTERS

TRIPOLI, LEBANON (REUTERS) - The stakes are high in Lebanon's election.

The heavily-armed Hezbollah movement has seen one of its main rivals descend into disarray, handing it an opportunity to cement power over a divided country that's sinking into poverty.

Mr Abdallah al-Rahman will not be casting a ballot, though.

"I won't vote for anyone," said the wiry-haired sculptor and activist, dismissing the candidates whose pictures are plastered on buildings and giant billboards in Lebanon's second city of Tripoli ahead of the national parliamentary election on May 15.

Mr Rahman is from the Sunni Muslim community, one of the country's main groupings and a traditional counterweight to Hezbollah, a powerful Iranian-backed Shi'ite group.

Yet like many of his fellow Sunnis, he is skipping the election following the shock withdrawal of his community's long-time leader and figurehead, Saad al-Hariri, scion of a political dynasty.

Mr Rami Harrouq, who lives in the Hariri stronghold of Bab al-Tebbaneh in northern Tripoli, will not be participating either.

Alternative candidates have not impressed the 39-year-old factory worker, and he has been worn down by the country's economic collapse.

"We carry a lot of resentment against politicians - especially in Tripoli. These last two years have been full of misfortune for us," he said.

"Of course I won't vote."

High abstentions among Sunnis - as well as a fragmentation of the Sunni vote as a result of Mr Hariri turning his back on politics - could play into the hands of Hezbollah and its allies, who collectively won 71 of 128 seats when Lebanon last voted in 2018, according to some political experts.

"Because of what Saad Hariri did, Hezbollah now has two-thirds of the parliament within its sights," said Mr Ibrahim al-Jawhari, a political analyst who served as an adviser to former prime minister Hariri, referring to the threshold that would shield the group and its allies from vetoes.

Hezbollah gains would reverberate far beyond this small country of about 7 million people.

Israel, Lebanon's neighbour to the south, sees the group as a national security threat and has waged war against it in the past.

Washington, London and much of Europe have classified it as a terrorist organisation.

Such a political shift in the movement's favour would affirm Lebanon's position within the regional sphere of influence of Iran, which is waging a proxy battle with Sunni arch-rival Saudi Arabia across the Middle East and is at loggerheads with the United States.

Hezbollah is an organisation that occupies a unique place in Lebanese society.

It commands a paramilitary wing that some experts estimate has a more potent arsenal than the national army, while also running hospitals and schools - earning it the frequent description of a "state within a state".

The group itself has said it expects the make-up of the new Parliament to differ little from the outgoing one and that it neither wants nor expects a two-thirds majority.

Its main Christian ally, for one, is widely expected to lose seats.

Yet any expanded grip on Parliament could give Hezbollah more sway over presidential elections later this year and over economic reform bills required by the International Monetary Fund, and even allow for amendments to the constitution.

It could also isolate Lebanon at a time when it desperately needs international support.

Three-quarters of the population are below the poverty line amid an economic meltdown that many people blame on political paralysis and corruption.

Political loyalties in the country mostly follow sectarian lines and power is shared between Muslim and Christian groups in a complex system aimed at preserving a balance between factions that have taken up arms against each other in the past.

When Mr Hariri announced in January he was stepping back from politics and that neither he nor the broader Future Movement would take part in upcoming elections, it was widely seen as a de facto boycott by the political heavyweight.

The move - which shocked supporters and rivals alike - capped years of political difficulties for Mr Hariri.

A poster depicting Mr Saad al-Hariri in Beirut. The poster reads: "Only your stance represents us". PHOTO: REUTERS

Future Movement founding member Mustafa Allouch told Reuters he understood the disdain on the streets, but said sitting on the sidelines was not the answer.

The 64-year-old resigned from the party, delayed his retirement plans and chose to run as an independent because he feared the "vacuum" left by Hariri's withdrawal would allow Hezbollah-backed lists to sweep in.

"This is very dangerous, because it drops the electoral threshold and opens the door for those we talked about earlier, Hezbollah ... to get seats and take control of the city," he said.

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